3½ stars (out of four)
Implacable and beautiful, the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne--brothers and filmmakers from Belgium--casts a dispassionate eye on young lives spent searching for money or tenderness, struggling to keep their heads above water. Sometimes the going-under is literal. In "Rosetta" (1999), set in a drab trailer park outside an industrial Belgian town, the Dardenne brothers' protagonist falls in a river and barely gets out alive. Later her only friend must be rescued from the same river; Rosetta nearly lets him die, because she needs his job.
"L'Enfant" is the brothers' latest, and it is very good. Here again the Dardenne s' characters must contend with rough currents both figurative and literal. Late in the film, on the run from the police, an affectless young punk and his teenage partner in crime wade into a cold and grimy-looking river near a highway. The gasps we hear from young Jeremie Segard, the actor playing the junior thief, after he's pulled out are heartbreaking. His stunned sobs are the sound of a heretofore unfazable kid growing up in a hurry.
Like all the Dardenne s' films, "L'Enfant" embraces a peculiarly ascetic brand of what, in other filmmakers' hands, might seem like cheap melodrama. Yet the brothers' documentary-trained methods--hustling, hand-held camerawork, naturalistically convincing portraiture, an absence of conventionally scored music--take the melo- out of the dramatic equation.
The film belongs to Jeremie Renier and Deborah Francois. They portray Bruno and Sonia, living from meal to meal and place to place. Bruno panhandles and steals. (The film owes a thematic debt to Robert Bresson's "Pickpocket," though visually that film was as smooth and polished as "L'Enfant" is nervous and rabbity.) At the start of "L'Enfant" Sonia has given birth to their son, Jimmy. "It didn't hurt too much," she says. Under pressure from loan sharks, Bruno must raise money quickly to save his hide. He arranges to sell Sonia's baby to some shady adoption middlemen. He does not tell Sonia the plan. He merely tells her where the baby went after the baby is gone.
Before, during and after this callous act of commerce, the Dardenne brothers maintain an emotional distance from Bruno. A would-be sport wearing his hat tilted low, like Jean-Paul Belmondo in "Breathless," the young man with the pockmarked skin seems impervious to his lover's feelings--impervious to nearly everything, except for momentary diversions, a beer, some new clothes.
Bruno must be saved, as much as poor swaddled Jimmy. As is usual with a Dardenne film, this one lands on a redemptive and hard-earned grace note. Some will buy it; some will not. The final sequence, which follows a suspenseful, ragged-edged chase down by the river, leads to the one unfettered rush of feeling in the entire picture. It's undeniably powerful. The Dardenne s' major works operate behind the guise of happenstance and randomness. But little is random. Theirs is the artifice of the real-seeming, and their films are no less stylistically identifiable--and, when you least expect it, wrenching--than those of directors working with a hundred times the budget and a thousand times the calculation.
A decade ago Renier played a variation on Bruno in the Dardenne s' "La Promesse." Olivier Gourmet, a fine, straight-faced, doughy-looking performer who starred in the brothers' finest effort, "Le Fils," plays a tiny part in "L'Enfant." It is an actors' film up to a point, but more than that, it is a film about a stark dramatic situation shot in a paradoxical style, freewheeling but emotionally rigorous.
It's clear the filmmakers intend their title to refer to more than one character. While there is a persuasive found-object quality to each of the Dardennes' movies, this one's focus on Bruno--essentially a two-toned character, eerily placid and then, briefly, devastated--comes with a touch of manufactured poetry along with its "found" prose. There is, finally, an element of artistry and emotional shading the Dardennes simply are not interested in capturing. (In a similarly realistic vein, Erick Zonca's brilliant 1998 film "The Dreamlife of Angels," one of the greats of the last 10 years, had this layer of artistry.) The Belgian brothers, at least these Belgian brothers, like their stories simple and raw, with plenty of breathing room for what other filmmakers keep out of their films: the in-between bits and pieces of daily life, as lived in desperate straits.
In the case of "L'Enfant," it is more than enough.
Directed and written by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; cinematography by Alain Marcoen; edited by Marie-Helene Dozo; produced by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and Denis Freyd. In French with English subtitles. A Sony Pictures Classics release; through Thursday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: R (for brief language).
Bruno - Jeremie Renier
Sonia - Deborah Francois
Steve - Jeremie Segard
Young thug - Fabrizio Rongione
Plainclothes officer - Olivier Gourmet