Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/14/08.
The Belgium duo of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are considered to be one of the finest brother writer/director duos of European cinema. 1999's Rosetta was a surprise smash at the Cannes Film Festival which won the duo their first Palme D'or. Known for their stark yet engrossing take on the struggles of poor and working class as well as oppression. The duo has been acclaimed all over Europe while receiving some attention in the U.S. with other award-winning films such as Le Fils (The Son) in 2001 and in 2005, the duo would win another Palme D'or with their fourth feature film entitled L'Enfant (The Child).
Written and directed by the Dardenne Brothers, L'Enfant tells the story of a young couple whose life of petty crime and welfare takes a changing turn when the young woman has become pregnant. When the young man decides to sell their child to the black market, things go wrong as he tries to right the wrongs that he's committed. A harrowing yet eerie portrayal of the poor in Belgium, it's a film that shows the Dardenne Brothers taking their documentary-style filmmaking to new heights. Starring Jeremie Renier, Deborah Francois, Jeremie Segard, Fabrizio Rongione, and Olivier Gourmet. L'Enfant is an eerie, harrowing, yet powerful masterpiece from the Dardenne Brothers.
A young woman named Sonia (Deborah Francois) is walking in the streets carrying her newborn baby named Jimmy looking for her boyfriend Bruno (Jeremie Renier), a petty thief trying to make money from stealing things with help from a young boy named Steve (Jeremie Segard). When Sonia finds Bruno, she reveals to him their new baby as he's more concerned with money as he's trying to steal and sell things through the black market. While he loves Sonia, he doesn’t know how to react to a new child as the two are running out of money and living in a drab apartment. Then one day, Bruno calls to wonder how much he money he could get if he is able to sell the child for adoption. Taking the baby while Sonia waits in line to collect her welfare check, Bruno makes a deal to sell the baby where he hopes that he and Sonia wouldn't have to live with the burden of raising a child.
When Sonia learns that Bruno has sold their child, she passes out as she is rushed to the hospital as she becomes extremely distraught. Bruno decides to get the baby back as he had gets confronted by a policeman (Olivier Gourmet) about the whereabouts of the baby. Bruno creates an alibi as he later goes to his mother's home where he asks her (Mireille Bailly) to go along with his alibi. Bruno makes a call to get the baby returned to him where he makes a deal to return the money he received plus his cell phone for the exchange of the child. Yet, he finds himself in deep debt as the black market dealer (Fabrizio Rongione) wants the same amount he’s been given. Though Jimmy has now returned, Sonia however, is still angry with him as she refuses to speak to him. Aware of his debt, Bruno turns to Steve for help as they go into another plot of theft that proves to be costly as Bruno is now aware of his moral dilemma.
While the film's plot is a bit simple about a young man having a child, selling it, then getting it back, and get himself into even more trouble. The Dardenne Brothers eschews plot in favor of character development as well as a narrative style that's very loose yet engrossing. The film is really about a young man, driven by his poor economic standing, where he learns about survival at its most harshest, not just physically but emotionally, mentally, and morally. While it's clear that Bruno is a character who is 20 years old, he has no idea on what it's like to be an adult or be a father. So in some respects, here's a character who has done something bad and early on, has no morality only to realize there's no price tag on a child or on love. His attempts to redeem himself is another fascinating journey itself though it starts off in a way that's morally wrong.
The Dardenne Brothers through their loose yet fascinating script is marked largely by their cinema verite style of directing. With their background in documentary films, the Dardenne Brothers definitely create an observant, freeing approach to the scenes they create. With very little cutting, the film has an elliptical approach to the pacing but it works to convey the journey of Bruno and his innocent yet chaotic relationship with Sonia. The film's ending is wonderfully handled as the Dardenne Brothers don't sentimentalize Bruno's moral decision and its aftermath but rather dwell on its emotional impact between him and Sonia. While the Dardenne Brothers also explore the world of Belgium's own economy and its affect on people living on welfare. Their approach to the political commentary is subtle without having to delve into heavily that would turn off audiences. The result is overall solid, engrossing, and certainly harrowing film from the Dardenne Brothers.
Cinematographer Alain Marcoen is wonderful colorful and realistic without any kind of grain of flashiness in the photography. Instead, Marcoen's work is superb for its realism in its cinema verite style. The editing by Marie-Helene Dozo is the film's true technical highlight for its shifting of sequence to sequence where most of the shots are done in one take and then moves into another scene or location with a cut. The editing is wonderful on knowing when not to cut. Production designer Igor Gabriel is excellent for its realistic look of the drab apartment that Bruno and Sonia lives along with look of the riverside shack that Bruno and Steve work on.
Costume designer Monic Parelle is excellent for its realism from the green t-shirt Steve wears to the clothing that Sonia wears to convey their own class standing. The sound work by recordist Quentin Collette and editing by Benoit De Clerck is superb for its documentary style, even in the film's climatic chase scene in the third act. The film doesn't feature a music soundtrack since there's no score to surround it to convey an unconventional approach to the film where there's no dramatic score to heighten a scene.
The cast is superb with a total of 21 babies playing the role of Jimmy along with smaller performances from Mireille Bailly as Bruno's mother, Fabrizio Rongione as Bruno's main dealer, Olivier Gourmet as a cop, and Anne Gerard as a police inspector near the end of the film. Jeremie Segard is excellent in a supporting role as Steve, a teenage thief who helps Bruno in his deeds but when he gets heavily involve a theft that nearly costs his life, he questions his own loyalty to Bruno.
Deborah Francois is great as Sonia, a young 18-year old woman who is trying to be a mother despite her poor background as she loves Bruno but hopes for him to grow up. Jeremie Renier is superb in his role as Bruno, an immature thief more concerned with money than a baby only to have his own moral development when he tries to do what is right but is always messing things up. Renier is the film's best performance for his portrayal of a conflicted young man showing someone seeking redemption in places where he's done so much wrong.
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, the film was a surprise winner considering that the Dardenne Brothers were underdogs going up against the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Michael Hanake, Tommy Lee Jones, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier, and other top international directors. Instead, the Dardenne Brothers would become one of the rare filmmakers to win the Palme D'or twice as their victory was a huge surprise. The film was released to the U.S. in early 2006 to rave reviews as the Dardenne Brothers prove to have established themselves as a solid filmmaking force.
L'Enfant is a truly superb, raw, and harrowing drama from the Dardenne Brothers. For audiences of international, foreign art-house films will no doubt enjoy this while those new to the Dardenne Brothers will find this film as a great place to start along with 1999's Rosetta. With great leading performances from Jeremie Renier and Deborah Francois, it's a film that isn’t easy to watch as well as unconventional. Yet, in the end, L'Enfant is a truly devastating yet engrossing film from Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne.
Dardenne Brothers Films: (Falsch) - (I Think of You) - La promesse - Rosetta - The Son - Lorna's Silence - The Kid with a Bike - Two Days, One Night
(C) thevoid99 2011