If you're familiar with the films of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, "L'Enfant" will be either pleasantly familiar, or annoyingly so.
The Belgian brothers' latest Palme d'Or winner and film-festival sensation is constructed out of the same combination of industrial flatness, mundane existence and faint hope that defines all of their films, with working-class characters clomping through yet another a downward spiral of misery.
"L'Enfant" is the story of Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and Sonia (Deborah Francois), a young couple living a hardscrabble life in depressed Seraing. Sonia's just home from the hospital, having given birth to their son, and Bruno -- a shiftless bastard who perceives everything as an opportunity to be exploited -- almost immediately demonstrates an irresponsibility and recklessness that spins all three lives in a very dangerous direction.
The rest of the movie tracks Bruno's quest to set things right ... which for the most part just makes everything worse, since Bruno lacks not only a moral compass but the sense God gave a goose. Much of "L'Enfant" could be seen as grimly funny, if there wasn't so much at stake; instead, the heart catches in the throat as one awful decision leads to another, with Bruno pushing his fraying luck ever further in order to come out somehow on top.
It's all very compellingly assembled, with the Dardennes coaxing strong performances from their cast, and Alain Marcoen's sterling cinematography capturing everything against a depressing granite and concrete backdrop. (Marcoen, who's shot all of the Dardennes' films, is at least as essential to their signature style as the brothers themselves.)
But even as one admires the Dardennes' accomplishments, one must admit that after "La Promesse" and "Rosetta" and "The Son," "L'Enfant" doesn't quite do anything new with their formula. The stakes are higher and the drama is that much more taut, but a certain familiarity is beginning to set in.
Sony's enhanced-widescreen DVD offers, as its sole extra, a wide-ranging interview with Dardenne brothers, taped at a French radio station. If we can't have an audio commentary -- and apparently we can't -- it's the next best thing.
STUDIO: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
RELEASE DATE: August 15, 2006
TIME: 96 minutes
DVD EXTRAS:English and French subtitles; directors' interview.
INTERNET SITE: www.sonyclassics.com/thechild