Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Liége, Belgium. 18 year old Sonia gives birth to a boy, Jimmy. Looking after the child, alone, she searches for his 20 year old father, Bruno. Sonia discovers that Bruno has sublet the apartment allocated to them, so the couple must stay in a hostel, where they are separated. Bruno, a petty criminal, is informed by an associate that there a couples willing to pay good money to adopt a child. Worried about how they’ll raise Jimmy, Sonia asks Bruno to find a regular job, which he dismisses.
Upon learning what they could get for selling Jimmy, Bruno does so. He tells Sonia that they’ll have another child, but Sonia faints and is rushed to hospital. Bruno attempts to retrieve Jimmy, only to be told he can buy him back at a premium. Sonia has the police involved, but Bruno asks his mother to cover for him and he claims Sonia’s lying. Bruno follows Sonia home but she wants nothing to do with him and throws him out. Bruno is beaten by the man he owes money to and is told he will now steal for them to pay his debts. With a younger boy, Steve, Bruno snatches a woman’s bag but is pursued by both a passerby and the police. As they hide in the river, Steve develops hypothermia. He is caught and arrested. Bruno then hands himself in. Sonia visits him in prison, where they both cry together.
The Dardenne brothers sit in a small, but prestigious band of film makers that include Alf Sjoberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Emir Kusturica and Shohei Imamura. They have all won the Palme D’Or, the most important of all international film prizes, twice. The Dardennes first won the award for their 1999 film ‘Rosetta’, which documented the life of a young teenage girl who was trying to escape both poverty and her mother’s alcoholism. Cut from similar cloth then is ‘L’Enfant’, the brothers’ second Palme D’Or winning film. There are obvious parallels between both films, which sit nicely within the Dardennes film making template. As with all their films, ‘L’Enfant’ is set in the industrial city of Liége in the North-east of Belgium. This is a haven it would seem for estranged, dispossessed youths, who make up the usual protagonists of a Dardennes film.
Sonia, the gymslip mother, has had to grow up quickly, whilst her erstwhile boyfriend, Bruno, has no interest in paternal responsibility, preferring to duck ‘n’ dive, eke out a meagre living any way he can, rather than settle for the daily grind. Or has he subtly and succinctly puts it; “only fuckers work!” This is clearly not a couple designed to raise a young child. There is a relationship of sorts, but the Dardennes are keen to show that both Sonia and Bruno act like teenagers. They’re not mature or responsible. They’re obsessed by their mobile phones; not just means of communicating but pivotal possessions for just living. They’re playful, often mock-fighting, but it’s perfectly evident that Jimmy was an accident. Whilst Sonia immediately tries to act like a mother, trying to provide for Jimmy and take good care of him, it’s important that the directors remain impartial in their characterisation and don’t judge their protagonists. It’s a skill they have that lesser film makers don’t possess. Even when Bruno agrees to sell Jimmy, he’s conscious not only of the financial implications, as lucrative as they are, but also of the welfare of his son. He’s well meaning to an extent and wants to know Jimmy is going to have a better life with another family. Then comes Bruno’s volte-face after Sonia’s collapse. In a Bressonian journey of guilt and redemption, Bruno attempts to make amends for his mistakes, only to find, of course, that it’s not so simple, as he finds himself in over his head, ready to resort to desperate measures to atone. The directors empathise with their characters, and whilst they don’t go overboard with the socio-economic factors behind their motives, it’s evident that they’re present, that these characters exist in an environment (not just Belgium, but Western Europe generally perhaps) that alienates them.
This is economic, efficient film making that utilises the fewest possible resources to make its point and doesn’t dress itself in irrelevant or superfluous material. At its core the film is a two hander between Bruno and Sonia. But then what of its title? The eponymous character of the film is Jimmy himself. But note how he barely exists as a character within the film. We barely see him at all. He is carried around but seldom cared for. He becomes nothing more than collateral, currency; something that Bruno can use and sell to continue his feckless, reckless lifestyle. Or are Bruno and Sonia equally the children; teenagers faced with adult situations that they’re not mature enough to deal with? There are no other individuals within the film with whom we identify, except perhaps Steve, the young boy who’s arrested after participating in one of Bruno’s robberies. The Dardennes deliberately strip their films back, showing us as much as we need to and concealing what we don’t. Note how many pivotal scenes seem to take place in darkness. When Bruno retrieves Jimmy, the exchange is undertaken in adjoining garages. The beating Bruno takes for not accepting the terms of the criminals he’d betrayed is all to audible to us but we see nothing.
This is just one example of the intense naturalism on show. Nothing is forced or calculated. Actions have consequences and individuals suffer; none more so than he or she who’s made that decision. This is film making that asks moral questions but doesn’t offer simple answers. The audience is left to decide much for themselves. The performances are routinely excellent; one really believes in Bruno and Sonia and can appreciate why they behave as they do. Presumably the actors work with scenarios rather than fully developed scripts, or at least there’s the air of some kind of improvisation. The influence of Bresson is everywhere but the Dardennes are unique film makers nevertheless; ‘L’Enfant’ is their ‘Pickpocket’ but distinctive from the latter and reflecting the times we live in.