L'Enfant (The Child)
Many would claim that the golden age of foreign film is gone, a lost dream of an era when movies by Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa were cultural events. Yet a countervailing myth exists. It says that there are current filmmakers from Europe and Asia who are every bit the equal of those earlier giants, but that their artistic stature hasn’t been exposed enough to win the audience they deserve. L’Enfant (The Child), the latest feature from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, enjoyed a rapturous response at last year’s Cannes film festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, and though I usually avoid discussing festival reactions, in this case they seem relevant, since L’Enfant is an attempt to create a spiritual journey in the austere yet heightened mode of Robert Bresson. To watch the film, with its coolly jagged handheld camera work, its stripped-to-the-bone empathetic portrait of a young man who appears to be beyond pity or empathy himself, is to share in the ”purity” of its design. It makes sense that L’Enfant has been hailed as a masterpiece, since a masterpiece is what it’s trying, in every unvarnished frame, to be.
If you wandered unknowingly into the film, however, you would see this: a stark, fascinating, and naggingly detached character study. Bruno (Jérémie Renier), 20 years old, is a lout, a jerk, a budding sociopath. He lives with his girlfriend in a Belgian steel town, and as the movie opens, she’s returning from the hospital with their newborn child. To say that the two are unequipped to be parents would be putting it gently. Sonia (Déborah François), who has the scrubbed vivacity of a cheerleader, lives off unemployment checks, and Bruno, whose only job is being a ragtag thief, has prepared for his new role by subletting their flat to strangers. Jérémie Renier, with dirty, tousled blond hair and slightly horsey features that appear a tad too big for his face, is all sullen instinct and appetite. He’s a remarkable camera subject, and he plays Bruno with a dead look in the eye that says, What’s in it for me?
Early on, Bruno shocks us to the marrow when he wheels away the stroller carrying his infant son, Jimmy, and sells the child to a black-market adoption ring. He does it casually, as if he were hawking a brick of stolen cocaine he happened to find on the street. The Dardenne brothers know that Bruno’s action is monstrous, but their film is an attempt to separate the sinner from the sin. Sonia, who faints (twice) upon hearing what Bruno has done, forces him to retrieve the child, but the adoption ring wants payback, with interest. The result is a ruthless chain of circumstance that becomes Bruno’s fateful punishment — and redemption.
The title of L’Enfant refers both to the baby and to Bruno himself, a moral infant forced, by scary karma, to become a man. The tests he faces are his stations of the cross: getting roughed up by his employers, rescuing a boy thief from frigid water, even a scooter chase that turns into an art-house action scene. If you buy the emotional climax of L’Enfant (it features hugs and tears), maybe you, too, will see the movie as a masterpiece. But to me, the Dardennes, talented as they may be, are done in by their own rigor: They create an extreme lost soul only to ”awaken” the humanity that captivated us by its absence. Unlike the great foreign films of old, L’Enfant makes catharsis look easy.