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Thursday, July 5, 2012

L'ENFANT (THE CHILD) -- DVD review by porfle

(This review originally appeared online in 2005.)

"We'll have another."

That's what petty-thief schlub Bruno tells his girlfriend Sonia after he sells their baby in L'ENFANT (2005).  She's a wimpy space-case who lives on the dole and has a boyfriend who sublets her apartment without telling her while she's in the maternity ward.  He's a narcissistic bum with a serious case of arrested development, who employs little kids to steal stuff for him to fence because "working's for f**kers."  They both cavort around playing like children and living life one goofy screw-up at a time.  And now they're responsible for the welfare of an infant boy named Jimmy.  Jimmy, needless to say, didn't do too well in the mom-and-dad lottery.

This is a subtitled, documentary-style Belgian film that won the Palm d'Or at Cannes, which means that you'll either be engrossed by its slice-of-lowlife account of Bruno and Sonia's dimwitted exploits or bored out of your skull by it.  I found it pretty interesting, watching the inexorably downward spiral of Bruno's life as he goes from barely scraping by on a daily basis to scraping the pavement.  It's mainly his story--Sonia (Déborah François) is there to offer him moral and financial support, which he continually squanders until he commits the final outrage and she throws him out.  After that, we watch his desperate, doomed struggle to maintain what's left of his life until he finally hits bottom.

Bruno (Jérémie Renier) is interesting to observe in the same way that it's interesting to watch someone fall asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand and wait for it to burn down to his fingers.  I'm not even sure I hate him since he's too childlike and stupid to know right from wrong, and I found myself feeling bad for him because he seems incapable of knowing any better.  When he deals with the school boys who steal for him, he's in charge simply by rank of age, although on a mental and emotional level he's basically one of them.  (And much more the title character than Jimmy.) 

He reminds me of a shrimpy, feckless cross between David Lee Roth and Kid Rock, strutting around in a fancy jacket and hat that he threw away his ill-gotten money on because he can't see past the next minute of his life.  By the end of the movie, he's had to sell the hat and the jacket is practically a dirty rag. 

The final outrage, as I mentioned before, comes after Bruno's fence suggests to him that there are couples who will pay big money for a baby.  So he takes Jimmy out for a walk in his pram one day and comes back without him.  The scene that shows the switch being made is unsettlingly offhand--Bruno goes into a dark, empty apartment somewhere, lays the baby on the floor, and stands waiting in the next room for a while.  Then he goes back in and there's a pile of cash where the baby was.  He stuffs the 5,000 Euros in his pocket and goes off to tell Sonia the news, with about as much comprehension of the enormity of his act as someone who just snuck a ten spot out of his mom's purse.

Sonia's response is to pass out from shock and end up in the hospital.  Nonplussed by her extreme reaction and fearful of what she'll tell the police when she wakes up, he decides to trade the cash back in for the baby and make everything hunky-dory again.  Trouble is, the baby brokers claim that this transaction will cost them double what they originally paid, so now they want 5,000 Euros from Bruno and promise to beat him brutally once a week if he fails to come up with the payments. 
Thus, Bruno's happy-go-lucky life as a petty thief is now devoted to desperately trying to scrape up enough cash to stay in one piece.  And to make things worse, his former soulmate and source of unconditional love, Sonia, now utterly despises him.

Most of the time L'ENFANT looks as though someone simply followed Bruno and Sonia around for awhile and recorded their tawdry exploits unobserved.  This is a style that can look like crap if it isn't done well, but brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who collaborated on the direction and script, know how to do cinema-verite right, and their cast is filled with actors who are convincingly natural. 

The story goes from point A to point Z in an informal fashion, finally coming to a stop like a record needle slipping off the last groove when there's nothing left to tell.  Things actually heat up toward the end with a botched purse-snatch and an exciting chase as Bruno and his young accomplice Steve (Jérémie Segard) flee from their dogged pursuers on a motorbike.  But it would all be rather pointless if not for the fact that circumstances finally compel Bruno to perform a selfless act that gains him a semblance of redemption which keeps L'ENFANT from being a distasteful wallow in squalor and nothing more.

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