Sunday, March 26, 2006

L'Enfant - Movie Review

L’Enfant 2005

Here is the perfect family film. If you want to abandon your children by the side of the road in exchange for a quick buck. And who hasn’t lived through that scenario? Belgium’s famed Dardenne brothers, excuse us, we meant frères are back with a vengeance in their Cannes Golden Palm winning success of 2005. This heartwarming, or rather bone chilling tale of two young vagabonds who are the less than proud parents of a newborn son, and soon find themselves embroiled in the father’s lovely scheme of selling their new child for desperately needed money. His rationale? They can always have more. Needless to say, or perhaps it should be stressed – the mother doesn’t quite see it the same way.

The father is played with a perfect eye on casting by Jérémie Renier in an astonishing performance as Bruno. A disheveled, off-puttingly attractive young man who makes his way by selling trash, begging for change and bizarre penny ante schemes with a pair of local teenage schoolboys who not only tolerate his ridiculous notions but encourage them for the thrill of the cheap crime. Watch Renier as he balances the characters fleeting moments of pride, profanity, cockiness and a sense of ownership over all that is not his. This terrific turn is not one of an actor showing off, rather an actor understanding the inner workings of a man so self absorbed that he cares little for the safety of his own child.

The young mother is portrayed by Déborah François as a crumpled together but surprisingly proud woman who is clearly in love with her hobo lifestyle and in particular the rarely seen charms of Bruno. Their lives together barely change once their son enters it. Leaving the hospital with barely a care in tow, the mother – Sonia is completely at ease having to sleep by the damp riverside as long as Bruno is with her. The child is obviously being cared for, but hardly the center of the conversation. This might not be the film for most young parents to go see. François is utterly believable as an easily taken-in young woman who discovers her own sense of worth - albeit a bit too late - by trusting the primal instincts of motherhood.

While the subject matter is less than alluring, the film is indeed a wonderfully effective examination into the lives of some desperate people, whose level of despair is hardly hinted at until the key moment. For Bruno in his shady dealings of selling anything he can grab his hands on casually mentions to one of his connections that he is the not-so-proud father of a new infant. The trash broker innocuously replies that babies can bring a lot of cash on the black market, and so Bruno not only absorbs the information but soon gives it the ole college dropout try and agrees to sell his son for some nice chunk of Euros. The only problem of course is that he fails to mention it to the mother of his child. Taking the opportunity while babysitting for the afternoon, he indeed swaps the kid for the money and attempts to casually inform Sonia of the transaction only once it has been completed.

Not only does Sonia not want any part of the ordeal, she kicks into fierce lioness mode and practically murders Bruno for the crime. Her overwhelming sense of anguish soon lands her in the nearest hospital in a near coma of grief. Bruno launches into a last minute frenzy to recover his child that escalates into a separate crime gone wrong that involves his younger accomplices and sends his already miserable life spiraling completely out of control.

Now, doesn’t that sound cheery? Well, no it isn’t. But what it is, is damn good filmmaking. The director brothers portray all the down low denizens as human beings and not mere characters. They may have incredible flaws as far as their sense of duty or morality, but these are not people who rest around contemplating their lives or the wonders of the universe. They exist by subsisting. There day to day is something most of us will never know or attempt to understand. By delving into the storyline without sentimentality or melodramatics, the directors understand that any life can be fascinating if it feels real enough to the viewer.

What makes this film more than tolerable, and even enjoyable insofar as the subject matter is shockingly abrasive is the directorial control. This is not a melodrama, nor is it some diatribe on the underprivileged. It is near impossible to feel pity for these characters, well perhaps for the enfant in question, but we remain absorbed by their story. This is truly the work of a fine pair of directors who understand pacing, storytelling and who hold their camera at a distance close enough to scrutinize the pitiable lot without indulging in grand theatrics.

While these may not be people you want to befriend, or even stop long enough to toss a coin to – they do exist. To some, the film might recall the great Agnes Varda’s “Vagabond” – an equally dark tale of the final days of a wandering homeless girl in rural France. Or even to an extant, the early neorealist masterpieces Shoeshine” or “The Bicycle Thief” – both by the master Vittorio de Sica. They too examined the world of the poor and bedraggled. “L’Enfant” may not have the poetry of de Sica or the visual élan of Varda – but it is equally poignant and powerful in its storytelling. So go hug your kids, before you completely decide to shill them out for a few shekels. Bless you all!

Written & Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne

Jérémie Renier as Bruno
Déborah François as Sonia
Jérémie Segard as Steve
Mireille Bailly as Bruno’s Mother
Fabrizio Rongione as Young Thug
Olivier Gourmet as Plainclothes Officer

Cinematography by Alain Marcoen
Film Editing by Marie-Hélène Dozo
Production Design by Igor Gabriel
Costume Design by Monic Parelle


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