[Note: L'Enfant was originally seen at the 2005 Toronto film festival, and this review was posted late last year in the appropriate festival thre
* A 2006 U.S. release*
It was bound to happen sooner or later. The expectations for LEnfant ("The Child"), the latest film by the Belgian masters Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, were perhaps too high; but, after all, their previous three features -- La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002) -- happen to be some of the best films to have come out in recent years, and their latest only inflamed its anticipation by winning the Palme d'Or at the 2005 Cannes film festival. For most filmmakers, a film like LEnfant would probably be considered an achievement, but it's a minor disappointment coming from the Dardennes.
The duo got the idea for the film while they were working on The Son. They watched a seemingly destitute young woman push a pram up a street a few times, while wondering what her current situation would be like and where is the childs father?! Unfortunately, their focus in the film shifts rather abruptly to the young man to whom the woman belongs to, and for long stretches shes virtually absent. Our protagonist named Bruno -- a child-like mendicant and the leader of a couple of petty thieves -- is played by Jrmie Renier, the young star of La Promesse. He's recently had a kid with his similarly puerile and homeless girlfriend Sonia (Dborah Franois). Always looking to make an extra buck, he decides to sell the kid on the black market, later telling Sonia that they could always have another. But circumstances ultimately cause him to face the realities in his life.
Undoubtedly, LEnfant is the most audience friendly film the Dardennes have made so far. And if this film helps raise their profile while bringing some attention to their previous work, then it should be considered successful. However, it doesnt compare well with their other films. The narrative itself isnt particularly compelling; and for the first time the filmmakers allow a pat resolution, one which wouldnt surprise many. Other than the late chase sequence, which is derivative of one from Rosetta, most others that lead up to it lack thrust and tension, abilities that have made the Dardennes masters of tone and structure. The point that they might be trying to channel through numerous instances where we simply watch Bruno wait for one thing or another is that his (non)actions dictate his thought process, not the other way around, but at the end of the day hes not as interesting a character, emotionally or psychologically, as one would like him to be.
But no matter what, it's not surprising to see that the Dardennes do care, and that comes across in their thoroughly realistic, humanistic portrayals -- even though, at times its difficult to comprehend the fact that someone like Sonia would be with Bruno. (It wouldve been much more interesting if the focus was on an earlier stage of their relationship or perhaps on Sonias life before she ended up on the streets.) Still, for what it is, LEnfant showcases hard life in modern Europe (once again the film was shot in the Dardennes grim industrial hometown of Seraing) without resorting to clichs, melodrama, or other trivial elements.
*L'ENFANT has been a part of a number of festivals since its premiere at Cannes. It opened in the U.S. on March 24th with very good reviews. Hopefully, the film's distributor, Sony Classics, will give it a chance by allowing it to grow on its own.