Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. 95 minutes. Hebrew title: Ha Yeled. In French, with Hebrew and English titles. With Jeremie Renier, Deborah Francois, Jeremie Segard, Fabrizio Rongione, Olivier Gourmet
The Belgian directing team, the Dardenne brothers, has created another stunning film. Like its predecessors, La Promesse
and Le Fils
, which won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival
, paints a portrait of people living on the bottom strata of Belgian society. Its realistic style makes great demands on the viewer, but it deals with genuine dilemmas and emotions and evokes affection and empathy for its characters. In the end, although it is not a movie with dazzling cinematography, seeing it is like looking at a great painting. You watch the characters' faces and feel you are looking into their souls.
It opens when Sonia (Deborah Francis) returns from the hospital with her newborn baby only to discover that her boyfriend, Bruno (Jeremie Renier), the baby's father, has sublet their apartment without telling her. Schlepping the baby and a diaper bag, she searches for Bruno, a petty thief who runs a gang of younger kids, at his various hangouts and finally catches him panhandling on the street. While he's glad to see Sonia, he has no real interest in the baby, telling her with no apparent concern that they can sleep in a homeless shelter for the time being. The next day, she wants to go register the baby's birth, while he is busy arranging robberies with his teen sidekicks. But she is so young (she looks like about 18, while Bruno is in his early twenties) that she isn't terribly concerned.
The two have a playful relationship, and the movie's weakest scenes are those in which they rent a convertible and frolic in a highway rest stop. The baby, conveniently, is extraordinarily docile, and never seems to get cranky or need a diaper change. When Bruno makes a big chunk of money fencing goods, Sonia is happy to spend it on a fancy leather jacket that matches his, rather than buying something more practical.
But although she may be casual about a lot of the trappings of motherhood, her love for her baby is deep. Bruno, on the other hand, does not seem to really comprehend that the baby exists. When one of the older criminals he works with casually mentions that there are a lot of people who would pay money for their baby, the next day, without consulting Sonia, he contacts the shady adoption brokers and sells them the child. After Sonia sees that the baby carriage is empty, he blithely tells her what he has done, suggesting they can have another baby. He gets a shock when she collapses, and goes off to get the baby back and, in the process, gets into trouble with the ruthless baby brokers.
The rest of the movie is not so much about his struggle to reclaim the child and pay back the brokers, as to redeem himself. Although he doesn't show feelings of guilt in any conventional sense, his careless attempt to make enough money to pay off his debt shows how desperate he is to put things right. Even though he has done something monstrous, he is not a monster.
, like the brothers' other films, may be deceptively simple in its design and may feel overly slow-paced and bleak to many viewers. However, the Dardennes are trying for a difficult mixture of realism and poetry. They aim high and of course there are moments when they fall short. For example, at times, it's frustrating that we know so little about the characters' backgrounds. In one scene, Bruno shows up unexpectedly at his mother's house and has to confront her boyfriend, who is clearly unhappy to see him. Sonia seems to have no friends or relatives at all. They are alone and live by crime, these are the facts of their life. When Sonia once suggests to Bruno that he take a job she has heard about, he dismisses her suggestion instantly.
In their previous movie, Le Fils
, the directors focused on the father of a boy who was murdered in a robbery attempt. Years later, the very young murderer has been released and enrolls in the father's carpentry course, by coincidence. The father must cope with his feelings of murderous rage toward the teenager. In that movie, it was easy to identify with the outraged father. Here, they present Bruno, a much less likable and less accessible character than a bereaved parent and the film is more challenging. Although I don't feel they have succeeded in creating characters as fully realized as in their last film, L'Enfant
is a moving look at an ambivalent person and a grim way of life. It has drawn comparisons to the films of Robert Bresson and Francois Truffaut, but, although the Dardenne brothers' work does bear some resemblance to these directors, their films have a unique quality. There is definitely no one else quite like them working in movies today.