#57 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.
You’re about halfway through L’Enfant when you realize whom exactly the title refers to. Sonia (Déborah François) has just had a baby boy, and when the movie opens, she’s seeking the child’s father. He’s not at his apartment, which is occupied by a surly couple who slam the door in her face (a gesture that will be repeated throughout the film, although eventually she’s the one doing the slamming). When she finds him he’s on the street, wandering between cars stalled at a stop light, begging for change. Bruno (Jérémie Renier) is a scruffy young man, who could be anywhere from mid-twenties to early thirties. The indeterminacy of his age is telling; while his thick features suggest a manliness, his mop of hair, puppy-dog eyes, and perpetually mischievous grin suggest perpetual boyhood. Though Sonia is clearly his junior, she manages to mix a girlish playfulness (she’s constantly goofing around with Bruno, amidst shrieks of laughter) with a motherly concern for her new charge. Bruno, on the other hand, as soon as he’s left alone with the baby, tries to sell his own son.
It’s after he arranges an illicit, impromptu adoption, belatedly informs Sonia (who passes out from the shock), and then scrambles to get the child back, calling the baby black marketers and arranging a pick-up in a garage, that we reach that halfway point. Bruno is sitting on a bus, cradling the infant (swaddled, throughout the film, in a puffy blue parka), staring numbly out the window at the grand buildings alongside the river. He had asked the kidnappers if the child would end up in a nice home, but now he certainly won’t: Sonia and Bruno get by on the proceeds of Bruno’s petty theft (his fellow gang members are about nine years old), hanging out in underpasses and sleeping in shelters when they need to lend their room to friends for money. Anyway, Bruno’s attempt to secure a better future for his boy seems a halfhearted moral gesture: it’s clear Bruno was selling the child for money, not for the baby’s own sake. After reneging on the deal, the smugglers threaten him with violence if he doesn’t recoup the losses they claim – in a few simple actions (calling a friend, bringing the child to an empty building, leaving it to be taken) he has made everyone’s situation much, much worse. And at that moment, it becomes clear that “l’enfant” is not the baby being held, it’s the big baby holding him.
Bruno is a child in charming ways as well as irritating ones, though his immaturity tends to mitigate any charisma. He seems, in some basic, stupid way essentially good-hearted, inasmuch as he doesn’t appear to wish anyone ill. Yet his unbridled selfishness constantly causes damage, to himself, to his mother (whom he tells to lie to the police), to his co-conspirators (whom he gets into scrapes that land them in the hospital and police station), and especially to his nascent family. Yet the Dardenne brothers, in an indirect, subtle way lead us to identify with Bruno – so that even as we balk at his actions, we’re never as attached to other characters as we are to him. Once he enters the story, we never leave his perspective; when Sonia collapses, though the camera swoons, we are outside her experience, coolly watching it from an emotional distance. As for the newborn, it remains impenetrable in its hooded shell: we hardly ever see its face, and it seems more an object than a person. In a way, Bruno is an object as well, though one with a modicum of intelligence: a kind of a half-human automaton, perpetually seeking to trade anything he gets his hands on for money.
The movie is stuffed with characters and situations ripe for socioeconomic commentary, yet the Dardennes focus on the one figure who, compulsive as he may be, seems the most to blame for his own situation. He disparages the idea of getting a job, weasels out of responsibility, and spends his money foolishly (buying his girlfriend a jacket to match his own, purchasing beer when he owes a grand sum to smugglers who – just his luck – happen to be in the bar). His poverty is dire (at one point, turned away from his own door, he wraps himself up in a rectangular box and sleeps by the riverside) but so is the quality of his decision-making. Finally, in the end he makes a relatively smart choice: turning himself in to take the rap for the kid he left behind, he belatedly accepts responsibility for his actions. Yet this too is an escape since he will not be able to provide for his child behind bars, and he’ll be protected from the criminals who wanted to extort him for the adoption-going-wrong. In the final sequence, visited by Sonia in jail, he bursts into tears and she cries alongside him. The pent-up frustration of the movie, a frustration created by psychology as much as sociology, finally finds its momentary release.
The world of the film is drab, but the starring couple convey a surprising modicum of glamour, swaggering in their matching jackets through the dim environs of a Euro-metropolis. The movie’s greatest virtue is its unblinking attention, not an intensity exactly, but not relaxed either. Its gaze is relentless; without any music, flashy photography, or slick editing to distract us, we float alongside Bruno in his relentless search for acquisition and release. The flowing, sometimes speeding, imagery provide a real sense of movement through space, particularly in the botched purse-snatch which provides L’Enfant with its haphazard climax. For some reason, I kept thinking of Bruno as a video-game character, gliding from place to place without much inner life, descending the levels of a sewer like they were levels on a Nintendo screen, gobbling up goods and currency and then dumping them out, like a voracious Pac-Man. It’s all he knows how to do; like the scorpion riding the frog, it’s in his nature to sting and sink. Hence the Dardennes view him with a kind of anthropological fascination, but their “objective” gaze is not entirely devoid of sympathy. The pitiful Bruno, by film’s end, seems finally ready to grow up. Unless that is, the game’s already over – or worse yet, like the aforementioned video games, destined to start up all over again.