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L'enfant / The Child (Version française)
L'Enfant, a groundbreaking drama from award-winning filmmakers Jean Paul and Luc Dardenne, takes us deep into the life of Bruno (Jérémie Renier), a down-and-out petty thief who reaches rock bottom when he sells his newborn son on the black market. In a bid to redeem himself in the eyes of his girlfriend Sonia, the baby's mother (Déborah François), Bruno goes against all odds to bring their baby home. Stunning audiences and winning the coveted Palm d'Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, L'Enfant is a gritty, modern day fairy tale critics are calling "a masterpiece" (Time Out New York) that will grab hold of your heart.
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The film opens with eighteen-year-old Sonia (Deborah Fran'ois), freshly released from the maternity hospital and carrying her brand-new baby, knocking at the door of her own apartment. She is refused admission. Taking advantage of her brief hospitalization, her boyfriend, Bruno (Jeremie Renier), rented the apartment for the week to some strangers. This incident sets the tone for the rest of the film. Sonia returns to the street where she encounters a friend with a motor scooter who takes her and the infant to meet twenty-one-year-old Bruno, who is the baby's father. Bruno casually looks at his son, "Jimmy," but he doesn't pay too much attention to him, as he is in the process of making one of his "deals." Bruno lives at the fringe of society, surviving off petty theft, trafficking in stolen properties with a gang of young teens who look up to him, and cadging Euros from Sonia's Government-issued family allowance. His latest "deal" having apparently succeeded, he goes and buys a beautiful baby stroller.
Later, while Sonia stands in line at the welfare office, Bruno takes the baby for a stroll in the carriage. While walking, he decides to sell Jimmy to a baby adoption trafficker, and then swiftly carries out his misbegotten plan. When he reconnects with Sonia and shows her the money, she reacts violently, and demands Jimmy's return. Bruno says simply, "We'll make another one." Sonia is overcome by shock, and faints. Bruno carries her to the hospital, and then worried that her raving about "the baby" is going to get him in trouble, embarks on a course to retrieve his son. Bruno arranges for the return of the trafficker's money, recovers Jimmy, and takes him back to Sonia at the hospital. However, the trafficker, accompanied by his goonish bodyguard, demands an "indemnity" from Bruno equal to double the payment for the botched transaction. To make sure that Bruno understands the seriousness of this indemnity, the trafficker's bodyguard beats Bruno, and in the process takes the few Euros that Bruno had in his pockets, which the trafficker says will be deducted from the total sum Bruno owes him. The indemnity is so large, Bruno knows that he will never be able to repay. Nevertheless, he valiantly tries, with the help of Steve (Jeremie Segard), a member of Bruno's gang, and one thing leading to another, he eventually ends up in jail.
L'Enfant was filmed in the town of Seraing, a dreary industrial suburb of Liege, located on the Meuse River. The film's style is that of a documentary, using a hand-held camera which is always on the move, pursuing Bruno and Sonia. So many close ups and extreme close ups force the viewer into extreme intimacy with the characters, and produce a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere from which no escape is possible. The film's austerity is amplified by the fact that there is no music in the whole film, only urban background noises.
As always, the Dardennes rely on the ability of their actors to be the actual characters before playing their parts. The never provide psychological descriptions of their protagonists, but leave it to the viewers to discover them as they develop on the screen. Jeremie Renier is the lead, as Bruno. Renier was discovered by the Dardenne brothers as a teenager, when they featured him in the leading role of La Promesse (1996). In L'Enfant, Renier is spontaneous and natural, simply superb in his role of the amoral Bruno. Deborah Fran'ois, in her debut role as Sonia, is already a compelling actress. Twenty-three babies were used in the role of Jimmy, not due to the part's challenge, but because of the necessity for multiple retakes -- babies require feeding and changing, and they can get cranky fast. A doll was used as a stand-in during only one scene at the beginning of the film, where Jimmy is carried by Sonia on the back of a motor scooter, because of the potential danger that may have been posed to a real infant. The doll's name was "Jimmy Crash."
Bruno, although physically adult, behaves like a child. He is not immoral as much as he is amoral, like a young animal, living day-to-day, oblivious to tomorrow. When he has money, he spends it on the spur of the moment: he buys a pricey baby carriage, expensive clothes, or he leases a fancy convertible to take his girlfriend and infant son on a joyride. Bruno seems to understand money in its purest form, as currency: the longer it stays in one place, the less valuable it is.
On the other hand, Bruno is generous, and above all, honest. When he distributes the proceeds of his "deals" to his young gang members, he is scrupulously honest in letting them know the precise amount of each transaction. And he does not abandon Steve in the hands of the police, but voluntarily goes to the police station, surrenders the stolen cash and takes full responsibility for the holdup. Sonia does not appear to have a strong personality, until she is challenged by the loss of her baby. Right in the beginning, after Bruno sells Jimmy to the trafficker, we see how motherhood transforms Sonia. For Bruno, it will take longer -- actually until the end of the film, following a series of terrible events. Even then, he will not have an epiphany, but at least something in him will change.
"L'enfant" (the child) is almost faceless, just a lumpy blue bundle with two tiny, protruding hands. He does have a name, "Jimmy," but he does not know it yet, as nobody speaks to him or addresses him during his first few days as a human being. Jimmy's start in life does not show much promise. He will have the distinction of having driven back from the hospital on a motor scooter, without a helmet, on a drizzling day. He will carry forever the feeling of abandonment, and a hatred for flowered wallpaper, remembering the room where his father sold him for a wad of Euros. Will he ever get beyond his inauspicious beginnings? The film's cathartic ending hints at this possibility. The Dardennes may be resigned regarding Bruno's and Sonia's future, or lack thereof, but one feels that they carry their hope for a new beginning in Jimmy.
Bruno and Sonia live in a permanent "here and now." They are like two cubs, cavorting, rough-housing, laughing, full of life and full of love for each other. In spite of their immaturity, there is no question that Bruno and Sonia love each other, and in the end, their love overcomes their adversity, bringing a faint glimmer of hope: for the first time in the film, and in their life. They transcend the gloomy present in their reconciliation, which could also be a manifestation of their survival instincts.
Bruno and Sonia live in a society which ignores and destroys its children, turning them into fringe elements, petty thieves, and misfits, a society where crime leads to more crime, more crime to violence, and so on, ending finally with imprisonment. Is there a solution? The Dardennes seem to answer "yes," and propose love and nurturing as the solution.
The Dardenne brothers never fall into the melodramatic or whining sentimentalism. Their reality, sordid though it is, speaks for itself. They are neither judges nor moralizers. They show us a crumbling society which has lost its bearings, and whose moral code has collapsed under the weight of repeated social and economic crises. Bruno and Sonia evolve in their everyday devoid of both perspective and future.
To conclude, a small production anecdote. In filming the scene when Bruno and Steve are on the run and find themselves up to their necks in the Meuse River, Jeremie Renier got into trouble. The cold water (which was 42 degrees Fahrenheit) was polluted by industrial oil from a nearby coal processing plant, and Renier twice ingested some of it. This landed him in the local hospital for a stomach pumping that evening.
The strength of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's film is to have made Bruno and Sonia, both such society outsiders, simply as two human beings, not the dregs of society nor poor wretches to be pitied: a remarkable achievement worth four stars.
Each of their previous films, from "La Promesse" to "Rosetta" to 2002's "Le Fils" are a journey; we follow a couple of people over the course of a few days in their lives until the final, emotional, gut-wrenching climax. "L'Enfant" ("The Child"), their newest film and the winner of the 2005 Palme D'Or at Cannes, is no exception.
Sonia (Deborah Francois) leaves the hospital with her newborn son, Jimmy. We first meet her walking through the streets looking for Bruno (Jeremie Renier), her boyfriend and the father of the baby. They find him panhandling at a busy intersection. Sonia learns that Bruno has sublet her apartment for the next few days (she wasn't going to need it in the hospital, right?), so they bed down at the local shelter. That evening, Bruno leaves to meet with his fence and sell her a stolen video camera. Bruno's main source of income is a group of petty thieves, all children, who steal things, sell them to him and he sells them to the fence. Any money he earns is quickly spent; on a new jacket, food if he is hungry, a rental car. While waiting in line for benefits, Sonia tells Bruno he should take the baby for a walk through the park. Bruno realizes everything can be sold for a price. He takes the baby to meet his fence.
The Dardenne Brothers have a unique style. They basically set a camera in the middle of the scene and record the non-professional actors living their character's lives, taking Realism to an extreme. During one scene, we watch Sonia move through her small flat, making a cup of instant soup for her dinner. This probably sounds excruciating to some. Why would you want to watch this? Why should you? The filmmakers realize this method of filmmaker literally thrusts us into the middle of these lives, we become active participants. The consistent exposure to these seemingly mundane events helps us to become a part of their world, observing little details and nuances throughout. During the same scene, we see Sonia is furious at Bruno, a time bomb ready to explode. When this inevitably happens, we realize how mad she really is.
As we watch these two very young people move through their lives, surviving, barely, the story is interesting and emotional. But the most memorable moment in a Dardenne Brothers' film always comes at the end. Everything until that point has been in support of the final moment. Because we spend so much time with Bruno and Sonia, the final moment has to be a very memorable one. We have to feel all of their pain, the work, the heart ache and mistakes leading to that point. In "L'Enfant", the final moments are very good, but they are not as memorable as the previous films from this duo. Good, but not outstanding.
"L'Enfant" isn't so much about the child Bruno and Sonia share, but about the other children in the film and their level of maturity.
"L'Enfant" is a very good film, better than most, and worthy of your time. Search for it at your local independent theater or repertory house. Hopefully, you will then decide to experience their other, slightly better films on DVD.
Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and Sonia (Déborah François) are two teenage drifters who have just given birth to a baby nine days ago. They live off Sonia's welfare and Bruno's petty theft crime gang of young kids, namely Steve (Jérémie Segard) who steal for Bruno, Bruno sells the hot items, then pays the boys. Bruno is not a responsible boy, preferring not to get a job, but wanting to buy expensive clothes to look good. His response to Sonia is one of playful adoration (they are obviously very much in love) but he appears to have little attachment to their new son Jimmy. In an act of desperation Bruno sells Jimmy on the Black Market for considerable money. When he tells Sonia she is devastated and throws mim out. Bruno makes contact with the source to whom he sold Jimmy, gains the baby back, only to discover that other thugs are now involved and demand 5000 Euros from him because of their loss in the scam. Bruno convinces Steve to commit some thefts with him on motorbike and they are followed with disastrous effects for Steve. Bruno faces his atrocious behaviors and the manner in which he accepts responsibility and the consequences attached provide a very heartrending ending to this story.
The film is shot with an eye for realistic location and mood. It is almost impossible for the audience to accept the behavior of these teenagers and that seems to be one o the goals of the writers and directors. Life has a spectrum of events - happy, silly, absurd, disastrous, monstrous, tender, forgiving - and these are all incorporated into the form of an unlikely story that becomes so real it is painful to watch. The young actors are superb, completely credible, and very real in their portrayal of the various personality aspects of their characters. The film is played without a musical score (except for a moment of Johann Strauss on a car radio) and the cinematography by Alain Marcoen is intensely aligned with the story. L'ENFANT may not be a film many viewers will find 'entertaining', nor was it meant to be. This is a thoughtful and disturbing film and one of the highest quality. In French with English subtitles. Grady Harp, August 06
"L'enfant" opens with Sonia, newborn infant in hand, tracking down the baby's father, Bruno. Bruno is something of a street tough, sleeping in shelters when necessary, stealing as a career--he seems, at first, to be relatively apathetic about being a new father. However, his genuine fondness for Sonia soon becomes apparent and the three start to band together as a dysfunctional family unit. Spending money as quickly as he can dishonestly make it, their living situation is far from ideal. One day, almost on a whim, Bruno makes a decision that shocks Sonia and drives the couple apart. Not realizing the severity of his actions or its repercussions, he sets about making it right. But doing the correct thing, in this instance, only pulls him further into the criminal life.
The film benefits from an impressive performance by Jérémie Renier as Bruno. Even as his actions must be viewed as reprehensible, he still comes off as likable enough. I believe this stems from a realness in his performance that allows one to identify him as a misguided youth who makes idiotic decisions as opposed to a character with real malice. His gentler scenes with Sonia, Deborah Francois, possess a palpable tenderness and a youthful playfulness. Seeing these softer moments, it makes Bruno's evolution more realistic--he wants to be a better person, even if it's not something that he has consciously decided. The film's ending is bittersweet, understated, open-ended and just about perfect. It allows for possibility, but doesn't spell out any tangible future.
There were some logistical questions that plagued me--most noticeably, how does Sonia take care of that baby? But a few minor quibbles aside, I found "L'enfant" to be quietly moving and completely satisfying. As more and more children are having and raising children of their own, "L'enfant" stands as an interesting case study. I very much enjoyed this tale. It thwarted my expectations at every turn--this hard edge story possesses a sweetness and hope that doesn't seem likely, but seems believable all the same. KGHarris, 03/07.
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