The Child (L’enfant)
Belgium (2005) Dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
The Dardenne Brothers seem to have found their niche in gritty social dramas in which the central protagonist is one at odds against the system in one form or another. This bleak 2005 effort follows a similar path but for a different reason, at time almost deliberately running in the opposite direction.
Bruno (Jérémie Renier) is a 20 year-old petty criminal living hand to mouth in a tiny river side shack on welfare and the money he earns from scams and trading in stolen goods. His 18 year-old girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) has just given birth to their son Jimmy, whom Bruno had yet to meet, staying away from the hospital.
Now reunited the couple spend the odd night in a hostel when the can afford to – or at least when Bruno isn’t blowing his money on days out. Whilst talking with his stolen goods supplier (Stéphane Bissot) about being a father, Bruno learns there is money to be made in black market adoption. Later, when Sonia queues for her welfare money, Bruno takes Jimmy for a walk and comes back alone.
You are quite right to be angry with Bruno after reading that synopsis, in many ways the child the title refers to. Neither he nor Sonia are ready to be parents, which is evident from the onset, while their own family are conspicuous by their absence, aside from a brief appearance from Bruno’s mother (Mireille Bailly) from whom he seems to be estranged, yet somehow a chip off the old block.
The script doesn’t necessarily set out to demonise Bruno for his irresponsible actions and for who he is, which is a veritable catalogue of ill thought out and rash decisions, instead it simply presents his story as a street wise hoodlum who doesn’t know any different when it comes to handling his problems.
It is also an expose on the seedy underbelly of life existing under our noses, showing there is no low to be stooped where money is involved. Bruno might not be able to show any paternal responsibility for his own son but there is an instinctive protective side in his role as Fagin to a group of junior scallywags, including 14 year-old Steve (Jérémie Segard).
While Bruno is infuriating with his selfish, immature and unconscionable behaviour, it isn’t until the second half of the film Sonia smartens up and tries to excise Bruno from her life, but before this, we shake our heads at why she stays with someone so selfish and irresponsible. The opening scene of Sonia returning home from hospital with Jimmy finds her locked out of her own welfare flat which Bruno sublet!
This does nothing to deter Sonia from hunting him down and staging a happy reunion, putting all her trust in Bruno to find accommodation and provide for them, although he believes real honest paid work is for losers. As you might expect, Bruno selling Jimmy was the last straw, causing Sonia to collapse from the shock of being told, so Bruno vows to buy Jimmy back. But, as ever with underworld dealings, there is a catch.
If it was possible to make a horror film without any ghosts, monsters or blood splattered gore, the Dardennes have come close here, the pervasive sense of dread permeating through every frame. You don’t need to be a parent to experience the feeling of cold apprehension and anxiety when witnessing the treatment of baby Jimmy. It not so much that he is harmed in any way, rather how he is passed around as a commodity with the same indifference shown to a stolen DVD player.
Once Bruno realises his error – or rather realises he stands losing Sonia because of his thoughtlessness – he begins something akin to a journey of redemption but the real heart of the problem is indicative of his corrupt and distorted sense of priorities and responsibility. This is reflected in the fact that Bruno and Sonia are mere babes themselves, and while Sonia responds the wake-up call, he runs away from it.
As trenchant and gut punching as the social commentary is in this film, there is no sense that we are being lectured by the Dardennes. The cinema vérité style with constantly moving handheld camerawork, lack of musical soundtrack and overall veneer of drab realism lends itself to this incisive delineation of teenage pregnancies in an unforgiving society blighted by underworld influences.
This extends to the performances from the key leads, two very subtle and nuanced turns free from affectation or the fine strokes of a deliberate pretence. Both Jérémie Renier and Déborah François have gone on to bigger things in their film careers but captured here in their nascent years, one sees not two future star actors but a real couple caught in over their heads.
An early example of the natural chemistry in their performances comes during a wordless scene eating lunch in a park. Sonia douses Bruno with her drink so he gives chase. It is spontaneous, evocative and completely unfiltered, but while we’re captivated by this display of childish frivolity, we remember that baby Jimmy is asleep on the backseat of the car, something his parents forget as they venture out further afield.
Essentially this is the razor’s edge that every scene in the film rests on – for every moment something appears to be heading in the right direction or seems complete in its depiction, the presence of the negative truth quietly seeps into the picture, reminding us there is no fairy tale ending awaiting us.
While their success has grown and their films have become more sophisticated, the Dardennes have lost none of the provocative bite in their mordant social commentary, and if you want to view this at its rawest and most effective, The Child is the film to see.