Judge Joe Armenio carries a boom box around with him everywhere he goes, so there will always be diagetic music.
"I find money, no need to hold onto it…"
The Dardenne brothers, chroniclers of the moral quandaries of Belgium's dispossessed, won their second Palme D'Or at Cannes in 2005 for L'Enfant (the first was for Rosetta in 1999). The Dardennes began their career as politically engaged, leftist documentarians, before having their first success at Cannes in 1996 with La Promesse, a tense, rigorous, unsentimental film about a teenage boy (Jeremie Renier) caught between loyalty to his slumlord father (Olivier Gourmet) and his promise to the wife of a poor immigrant laborer. Ten years later, in L'Enfant, Renier plays petty thief and new father Bruno, a man who is just as much an enfant as his baby.
Facts of the Case
Bruno, who says that "only fuckers work," makes a tenuous living by stealing and selling goods, using whatever money he has for some unnecessary consumer purchase, before beginning the cycle all over again. As the film begins, his girlfriend Sonia (Deborah Francois) has just had a baby, without any help from Bruno, who seems less interested in his child than in monitoring his "business" on his cell phone and engaging in juvenile horseplay. He sees the baby as just another commodity; when left alone with young Jimmy, he immediately sells the infant on the black market and is surprised when Sonia reacts with shock and fury ("We'll have another," he tells her). The rest of the film deals with Bruno's attempts to retrieve Jimmy and win back Sonia, but the focus is not on the mechanics of his pursuit. The central question is whether Bruno, who has an utter lack of introspection or self-awareness, will find some sort of maturity and human compassion.
The Dardennes' main virtue is the assurance and authority of their style. "Realism" is an often-abused word, but few filmmakers are as good at creating such an intense illusion of unmediated reality, through naturalistic, unforced performances, a command of setting and atmospheric detail, an intensely focused but unobtrusive camera style, and a total rejection of non-diagetic music. Their focus is on creating an intensely felt physical and social environment within which their narratives can unfold. This is both an aesthetic and a political necessity; their concern with moral issues is inseparable from their concern for the poor and the world in which they live. In L'Enfant, the world is that of people on the margins, totally outside of the labor market, who have given up on a society they see as inherently unjust. Much of the film takes place in settings where one does not expect to find human beings, places not intended for human habitation: the side of a highway, a ramshackle dwelling beneath an overpass.
Bruno sees no possibility of a livelihood within the larger society, so he has, in a sense, remained a child. He has no sense of responsibility to himself or others, and his puppyish affection for Sonia does not extend to being with her as she gives birth to their child. As many critics have pointed out, the title ("The Child") refers just as much to Jimmy's father as to the baby himself. The Dardennes are not exactly subtle about this, showing us numerous scenes of Bruno and Sonia chasing each other around, laughing and playing like children; these scenes are not comic relief but a troubling glimpse of the immaturity of these new parents (although Sonia seems more responsible and connected to reality than her boyfriend). As Bruno waits to sell his baby, he stomps around in the mud and tries to plant his footprints on a nearby wall, and his "associates," with whom he organizes his thefts, are boys in their early teens. Bruno is, of course, not the most sympathetic of characters, but it's important that he's not a monster, either, capable of some vulnerability and human feeling; Renier does an excellent job of embodying this fairly inscrutable man-child.
The Dardennes have often been compared to Robert Bresson; like that French master, they make films that are almost tangibly physical but which contain strongly moral and spiritual subtexts. The scene in L'Enfant in which Bruno sells the baby also suggests Bresson (and especially A Man Escaped) in its use of off-screen sound, although Bresson's audio environments (especially in the later films) tend to be more rhythmic and abstract, less directly tied to narrative. Beyond that, though, I've never really gotten the Bresson comparison. The Dardennes' films are much more naturalistic in style (even if they are "minimalist" and "austere" by Hollywood standards). Bresson, through his deliberately uninflected performances and uncanny sense of narrative and rhythm, manages to create a world that travels past both realism and stylization, arriving at a deeper and more mysterious place, whereas the Dardennes seem to me talented and unusually intense arch-realists. The Dardennes, however, seem to be pushing the comparison themselves, as the narrative of L'Enfant and especially its ending suggest Bresson's Pickpocket. It's also telling that the redemptive female is named Sonia, just as she is in Bresson's inspiration, Dosteovsky's Crime and Punishment.
In the end, I appreciated L'Enfant more on an intellectual level than an emotional one. Despite the Palme D'Or win, critics have started to grumble that the Dardennes are repeating themselves and I think they have a point. Their style is almost too perfect, refined to the point of ossification; while watching L'Enfant I never once felt that aesthetic jolt, that tingling feeling of surprise that I get when seeing a truly great film. It's very accomplished, but I get the sense that the Dardennes have taken this style and approach to narrative about as far as it can go.
Sony presents the film in a crisp anamorphic transfer and 5.1 Surround Sound, with optional yellow subtitles (Sony has been doing a good job with their foreign releases; see also the DVD of Michael Haneke's Cache). The only extra is a half-hour interview with the directors, apparently from a French radio program. The subtitles for this interview are burned-in and too small, but the piece itself is interesting; the host is intelligent and asks good questions, even if the Dardennes occasionally gently correct his interpretations (the host says that Bruno is rough with the baby, for example, while the directors insist on his crude affection for Jimmy). The Dardennes also tend to evade the more difficult questions, such as the one about the religious content of the film, which is perhaps for the best (I'm always wary of hearing an "official" interpretation that closes off other ideas).
It's good to see a Dardennes film released by someone other than New Yorker, whose mediocre releases of La Promesse and 2002's The Son were previously the only Region 1 discs available from the directors (Rosetta is still missing in action, although I've heard good things about the Artificial Eye's Region 2 release). So while this is the best DVD currently available of a Dardennes film, it's not necessarily the best film. They've set very high standards for themselves, though, and any discerning film fan will want to see anything they've produced.
A good film and a good DVD.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview With Directors Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
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