L'ENFANT (THE CHILD) written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, with Jérémie Renier and Déborah Francois. A Mongrel release. 100 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (April 14). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
There are people desperate to have a baby, and people with babies desperate to get rid of them. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that early on in L'Enfant a father named Bruno (Jérémie Renier) sells his baby for quick cash.
"I find money," he says at one point. "No need to hold onto it."
It's an act that inevitably shocks the elite viewers who make up the audience for L'Enfant, but shocks them in the way an Algerian Merlot might unpleasant, but interesting.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne make brilliant, important films, but it has to be said that they're serving up underclass thrills to wine-list audiences. The kind of people they make films about probably never see them. The kind of people who do see them my own cork-sniffing ass included likely never have to make the brutal moral choices that make their films so affecting.
L'Enfant won the Dardennes their second Palme d'Or at Cannes last year. They first won seven years ago for Rosetta. Those two films, plus La Promesse and Le Fils, proved them to be masterful filmmakers.
There's really only one trick in the Belgian brothers' method, but it's a powerful one: they stay close to their characters. Really close. There are no music cues in L'Enfant, no establishing shots, no moments to pull you back from what's happening to the people you see onscreen.
The camera alone measures the emotional distance between you and the three people at the heart of this film: a young woman, the father of her newborn baby and the father's partner in crime. The Dardennes' discipline is impressive, especially since the technique demands that all judgments be withheld.
But it's the bridge they've built between subject and audience that I find most interesting. In L'Enfant, the buyer for Bruno's child no doubt comes from the same class that attends subtitled films. But that bitter little note is left submerged in the aftertaste. What we savour instead are the infantile acts of Bruno and Sonia (Déborah Franois), two parents old enough to make a child but too young or too callous to care for it.
L'Enfant is brisk, wise and morally sophisticated. Let it breathe and it opens up beautifully. But responsibility for any effects of drunken smugness has to rest with each viewer.