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Amazing Grace: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “L’Enfant”

Amazing Grace: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's "L'Enfant"

If there is a point at which the craft of directing becomes so exquisite that it transcends and obviates criticism, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne might have reached it with the 2005 Palme d’Or winner “L’Enfant.” Though weaned on documentary filmmaking, the Belgian brothers make narrative films that beg to be described with poetry: florid metaphors, stanza-long similes from epic ballads–never mind that their argot is stolidly against anything but absolute minimalism. The way I feel about the Dardenne brothers is the way J. Hoberman praises Robert Bresson; to not understand them is to not understand the cinema. With their bleak, uncompromising, and astonishingly affecting dramas of marginal lives, they have thoroughly exploited the medium’s potential for laying bare real life (as fraught with complications as that notion might be). Godard’s famous axiom that cinema is truth at 24 frames per second, seems to have been formulated with the Dardennes’ films in mind.

“L’Enfant” revisits the brothers’ favored milieu of Seraing, a depressed steel town in eastern Belgium, and once again follows the lives of folks barely struggling to get by. They begin by tracking Sonia (Deborah Francois) ascending the stairwell in a dingy apartment building, babe in arms. The camera, as is their custom, is almost too close for comfort, close enough to notice that the baby fat has not completely melted away from her face. She inserts her key in the lock, only to have it rudely slammed in her face by some stranger: the child’s father, Sonia’s boyfriend Bruno (Jeremie Renier), whose preternaturally raw turn in the Dardennes’ “La Promesse” vaulted the then-15-year-old actor to European stardom, has sublet her apartment to one of his friends while Sonia was in the hospital. Bruno’s a petty thief, employing school kids to raid wealthy residences while he stakes out their owners, living in a perpetual adolescence. He earns money by selling jewellery and small electronics, and spends it with no regard for what the future might bring. Faced with the added financial burden of supporting his child, this unemployed kid (Bruno’s face still blushes with angry patches of red acne) in typical moments of bewildering largesse, spends 400 euros on matching his-and-hers leather racing jackets and drops a c-note to rent a convertible for the day. While Sonia waits in line for her unemployment check, Bruno takes Jimmy for a walk. Pushing the pram around town, Bruno uses his kid to generate sympathy while panhandling, and fields a phone call from one of his fences. “No,” he says, “I don’t have anything” to sell right now. Or does he? A rapid reckoning–Bruno’s eyes dart furtively, recalling a prior conversation about the lucrative trade in black market adoption–and he calls back: how much do people usually pay for a newborn child?

During a recent interview in the British newspaper The Guardian, the Dardennes vehemently denied any political agenda behind their filmmaking, claiming that they’re more interested in poverty’s effects on human interaction–whether it generates altruism or selfishness, to cite one salient example–than in material deprivation itself. But I’m fairly certain that one’s sympathy for or revulsion to Bruno is directly proportional to how far left or right, respectively, your leanings are. Bruno, who appears in every single shot, poses a particularly difficult problem because no character in the Dardennes’ oeuvre has been as deeply ambiguous. Renier deftly straddles the boundary between immorality and amorality; by lying to the police and denying that he attempted to sell Jimmy, Bruno seems to deem irrelevant the distinction between right and wrong. He feels badly for his misdeeds only insofar as others are willing to express their displeasure, not according to an internally defined moral compass; his contrition in direct proportion to Sonia’s stoic and silent fury. That behavior, and an inability to grasp the value of things or the liquidity of money, points to an underdeveloped social intellect; in short, Bruno has a five-year-old’s sense of personal responsibility and an equally great misapprehension of interpersonal relations. As the couple has slap fights over the choice of radio station, or chase each other around the parking lot (both scenes in which the presence of l’enfant lurks meaningfully on the periphery), it’s hard not to feel for these kids who have been cast into the wide world saddled with adult responsibility–without the wherewithal to adequately look after themselves.

The Dardennes’ method of working is unadorned, and delivers all the more impact for it. A darkened apartment, the background for the moment when Bruno reaches his nadir is the closest the brothers come to expressionism; Sonia’s spontaneous collapse on the riverbank upon hearing the awful news is their closest to melodrama. Their camerawork disavows the camera’s presence as it lingers obtrusively close and agonizingly long on callow, unassuming faces–for 100-odd rapturous minutes we’re afforded seemingly unmediated access into Renier and Francois’s very cores. (Or souls, but the word has connotations of grace, and that firmly remains the purview of Bresson.) I would call “L’Enfant” documentary, but that ineffable something in nonfiction filmmaking has always made me aware of the roadblocks the camera throws up in the way of truth. As a gesture of primal simplicity, the only modern rival to this film is Cristi Puiu‘s upcoming “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu“; only the most hard-hearted wouldn’t feel something when cast under the pall of either film. “L’Enfant” is so organic and honest, it feels as though it had filmed itself.

But more than “L’Enfant” is uncommonly affecting in its own right, it throws the rest of their oeuvre into sharp relief. In “L’Enfant”‘s wake, the tragedy serving as to “La Promesse’s” fulcrum is rendered as untenable excess; “Rosetta‘s” scattershot camerawork appears as if trying to be more real than real. “The Son‘s” organizing principle, whereby the Dardennes’ filmed Olivier Gourmet almost always from behind, appears in retrospect like a bit of extreme formal trickery. And these are all brilliantly, quietly devastating films. When compared with the stretch of “La Promesse” to “L’Enfant,” the only director with as distinguished a string to start a fiction career was Godard with “Breathless” through “Contempt.” In fact, the Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s excellence is so routine, so virtually assured as certain, that it’s almost mundane. Ho-hum: another masterpiece.

[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for the Village Voice.]

A scene from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “L’Enfant”. Photo by Christine Plenus and courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Take 2
By Nick Pinkerton

The artistic antecedents cited ad nauseum for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s wonderfully adroit new movie are Dostoevsky‘s “Crime and Punishment” and Bresson‘s “Pickpocket“–but even if the filmmakers affirm that pedigree, I think it’s a bit off the mark. Raskolnikov and Michel were theorist-criminals both, undertaking moral experiments through philosophically backed deviance. The narrative of “L’Enfant” reminds me a bit more of, say, “La Strada“–a rather dense guy, Jeremie Renier’s shabby hustler Bruno, taking a very, very long time to comprehend the full size and shape of his transgressions.

There’s certainly something of the bathetic tramp-clown in Renier’s long, flat mouth, especially in the film’s first reel, in which he sports a battered chapeau worthy of a silent screen comic. The milieu is pure baraki–“white trash, Belgian style,” as a friend explained it to me. “L’Enfant” plays out amidst the industrial necropolis of the brothers Dardennes’ beloved northern mining towns–most of the exteriors were, like “Rosetta,” shot in Seraing, the Walloon equivalent of Gary, Indiana, and the sense of place is extraordinary, though Deborah Francois, chunky, damaged hair aside, is a bit too unsullied in her prettiness to slip into her lowlife role; you really catch the full measure of her beauty when she does a beaming little runway strut for Bruno to show off the matching leather jacket he buys her (and really, you don’t get much more trailer-park love than matching jackets).

The titular “Child” would seem, obviously, to refer to the tot pawned off by dad for a fistful of Euros, but it might just as well refer to either of the film’s parents, who’re perpetually at play–Renier has one particularly inspired little moment where he makes a game of trying to stamp his muddy footprint further and further up on a concrete wall, exactly the sort of thing a bored 11-year old’s carefree, careless mind would come up with.

[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]

A scene from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “L’Enfant”. Photo by Christine Plenus and courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Take 3
By Jeannette Catsoulis

You can’t help feeling that the Dardenne brothers watched a lot of Ken Loach in their formative years. Like Loach, they just keep making small, blue-collar masterpieces about people most of us ignore in life and prefer not to see on our movie screens. Also like Loach, their connection with their characters is profoundly empathetic: no matter how despicable Bruno’s behavior, we are never permitted to despise him. We understand his life is lived on the run, on impulse, and the baby is simply another commodity–a windfall, even. His bewilderment in the face of Sonia’s fury is genuinely touching– “What did I do? I thought we’d have another”–and perhaps the film’s most singular achievement is conveying the immediacy and fragility of Bruno’s life. Like him, we’re given no time to think about, or react to, his decisions, and the Dardennes film him like a rat in a maze. Wandering in the chaos of an emergency room, weaving through oblivious and relentless traffic, moving down a narrow corridor with identical closed doors. All his choices are random and seemingly dispassionate. Until they’re not.

In “L’Enfant,” the brothers trick us a little with the title, because almost everyone in the movie is a child. Sonia and Bruno tussle and giggle like kids, buy a leather jacket in lieu of food, and are unconcerned about shelter. And, as we saw in “Rosetta,” the brothers are astoundingly tapped into female anger: the scene where Sonia crashes wordlessly around the kitchen, making soup and ignoring Bruno with every nerve in her body, is universally recognizable–more so than any of Julia Roberts‘ pithily-scripted, hear-me-roar responses to male thickheadedness. It’s also worth noting that only in America, where the act of breeding–one of our most reliable skills, frequently accidental and often inconvenient–is glorified to a ridiculous degree, would “L’Enfant” receive an ‘R’ rating. As though babies, along with the means of their production, aren’t bought and sold every day.

[Jeannette Catsoulis is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot who has also written for The Independent, DC One Magazine, and is a regular film critic for the New York Times. ]

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