Once More, With Feeling
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, Sony Pictures Classics
The Dardennes give calculation a good name. Anyone who’s been following the progression of the essential, standalone Belgian brother filmmaking team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have come to know exactly what to expect from the former documentarians. To say that the Dardennes never fail to deliver on their formula is hardly meant as negative criticism. Ever furthering their investigation into the depths of human desperation by finding moments of spiritual lucidity to counter daily struggle, each Dardenne film functions as a heavenly spotlight shone on some of our darkest crevices. That the Dardennes stay in the same general sociopolitical strata—working-class Belgium—should never be used as ammunition to tag them as limited: the Dardennes have double-handedly imbued their beloved wrecks with an astounding universal clarity. “Going through the motions” to the Dardennes, it seems, consists of the following: Surveying with a verité camera—whose detached qualities are betrayed by an intense, shockingly palpable empathy—the moral dilemmas self-inflicted by desperately unhappy or confused people forced to capitulate to capitalism’s most heinous demands, yet ultimately, through the inadvertent aid of another human being, are able to find a form of salvation and a reason for continuing on in this world. For me, knowing this scheme heightened rather than dampened the intensity of their latest masterwork, L’Enfant—when what seemed like the main conflict seemed to reach a sort of resolution somewhere near the midpoint, I began to wonder to myself just how the Dardennes would manage to achieve what they always do: a state of grace.
A strange form of suspense, perhaps, but the prior knowledge of their world outlook, of their painfully acute and benevolent embrace of their characters, of their ability to raise up an earthbound hell into a calming emotional plane without forsaking their realist tendencies, all created a certain dramatic irony between this viewer and the frenetic downward spiral of activity onscreen. Wanting to shout to Jérémie Renier’s lost protagonist at the film’s most dangerous moments that he was in good hands, that he would somehow be recouped for humanity by the end of his journey, I found myself run ragged, breathless, elated. L’Enfant is an emotional overload, a bullet-paced, two-fisted cousin to Bresson’s L’Argent (though the frequent comparison to Pickpocket is also apt) that surveys the damage that’s done every day between people caught up in machinations that consider monetary over emotional stability, the material over the spiritual.
As is per usual, the Dardennes open with frenetic movement, though here instead of Rosetta stomping and screaming throughout her factory locker room as she’s about to be relieved of her duties, we get teenage Déborah François’s Sonia insistently kicking in an apartment door, her newborn baby cradled precariously in her arms, as she searches for Renier’s Bruno, the baby’s alleged young father and petty thief. When she finally tracks him down, near a fairly desolate gravel pile by the railroad tracks, Bruno takes the news of his son’s arrival with a skittish enthusiasm that itself borders on the childish. The couple then seemingly happily unite in grasping attempts at domesticity, trying to fund their new three-person household yet too often enticed by the seductions of expensive matching jackets, making a go at adulthood yet readily descending into alarmingly infantile spasms of tickling and wrestling. Though Sonia and Bruno look as though they could be no older than 18, school seems not to be a priority, and their parents themselves seem to be either out of the picture or, in the case of Bruno, estranged and disillusioned with their child’s ne’er-do-well lifestyle. As if that isn’t all enough of a tangle of what or who the deceptively simple title is truly supposed to describe, Bruno also acts as somewhat of a surrogate dad/big brother/bad influence on local 14-year-old Steve (Jérémie Segard), who aids him in many of the cons and extortions he unleashes around town.
The central shocking and inciting event occurs when Bruno casually decides, behind Sonia’s back while she is standing in an endless line to get the child registered, to sell the baby on the black market. While it may seem, and perhaps will be even advertised as, the film’s ostensible hot-button topic it is nevertheless so woven into the fabric of this quotidian scrabbling that it becomes alarmingly de-sensationalized. The sequence happens with barely a warning; Renier simply wanders off with his monstrosity of a baby carriage, panhandles for some change, makes some calls, does some back-alley jump kicks—and then finally enters a drab, abandoned waterfront garage, places his child on the floor of an empty, gutted room, swaddled in his expensive jacket, exits and waits in an adjoining room. Shot in the hollowed-out garage without cuts, this moment is expressed so matter-of-factly and serene that it seems almost otherworldly. As Bruno waits, we can just make him out in the dark, the enormity of the act is swallowed up by our sheer disbelief. When he returns to where he left his son, in his place is a pile of cash, wrapping up tightly, cleanly. The transaction has been effortless, smooth. Some could bemoan the lack of clear psychological motivation outside of financial gain as keeping them at an emotional distance, yet it’s this lack of forethought and consideration that has brought Bruno to this place. Surely if the idea had been given more time to stew in Bruno’s head (and ours), a different choice would have made; like all of the Dardennes’ films the camera moves so quickly, the subjectivity is so contained, the act of decision-making is so fragmented and caught up in the mechanics of making every moment count, that we’re barely given time to think about consequence before it’s too late.
From this point on, the breathless emotional Dardenne tug becomes even greater, as the battle to set the world on the right path sends us out on a series of ever-escalating bad decisions and deepening conflict. Like La Promesse, Rosetta, and The Son, L’Enfant has been viewed as a religious allegory as much as suspenseful sociology, yet in their miraculous universes, words like “redemptive” and “transcendent” equally apply to either approach yet still cannot sufficiently describe the hard-won soul-cleansing at which they are able to arrive. And getting there this time, though as rocky as ever, moves along with a less distracting rigorous formal aesthetic that had kept The Son, with its over-the-shoulder subjectivity, at slightly more of an arm’s length. Yet both reach similar ends: What makes their films both profoundly Christian and ineluctably pragmatic are their ultimate belief that man’s greatest potential lie in his ability to forgive.