L’Enfant

| May 22, 2006

Bruno, the arresting young subject of L’Enfant, is not your average movie hero. In fact, rarely has the word anti-hero seemed more appropriate. As played by the blonde and blandly handsome Jérémie Renier, he’s a Eurotrash James Dean, sans the charisma: a rebel without a cause, a clue, or a moral compass. Selfish and apathetic to the extreme, he’s also a petty crook and a shiftless reject. Of course, modern cinema is brimming over with losers and louts, but what makes Bruno unique is his complete and utter indifference, his inability to connect with anyone or anything outside of himself. Can we really be expected to care for a character that seems, by his very nature, beyond empathy?
That’s one of the more compelling questions raised by L’Enfant, the latest from acclaimed Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, the film has been ecstatically received by critics and cinephiles on both sides of the pond. But is it an instant masterpiece or just another over-hyped import? One thing’s for sure: the Dardenne brothers, whose last film was 2002’s celebrated La Fils (The Son), have made a starkly naturalistic, intermittently fascinating character drama. What they’ve also made is a serious, calculated bid for art-house fame, a canny and very deliberate attempt to live up to their own hype as bona fide masters-in-the-making.
L’Enfant is French for “The Child;” it’s one of those titles that has both literal and deeply sub textual meaning. The child, in this case, could refer to either the emotionally stunted Bruno or to his newborn son, Jimmy. Set in a dead-end industrial town, the film more or less begins with Bruno being introduced to Jimmy by Sonia (Déborah François), the infant’s mother and Bruno’s young, waif of a girlfriend. The young lovers basically live day-to-day, scrounging up a meager income through their own separate methods: Sonia sublets her tiny apartment to strangers, while Bruno runs a minor-league theft ring with the help of local school children. The latter seems relatively content with his vagrant lifestyle (even when it means sleeping under a dank overpass by the lake), so naturally he sees the arrival of Jimmy as little more than an awkward inconvenience, a new responsibility he is unwilling to embrace. Actually, neither Bruno nor Sonia are even remotely prepared for parenthood; in one revelatory moment, the two playfully wrestle in the grass, leaving their infant son alone and unsupervised in the backseat of a car. Look! the Dardennes appear to be screaming. Children raising children!
As a portrait of life on the fringe of society, L’Enfant is gritty, sparse, and, at times, modestly compelling. It’s also leisurely paced, perhaps too much so; these days, it’s all too easy to pass off meandering storytelling as cinematic purity. But the Dardennes have a few dramatic tricks up their sleeve. About halfway through, Bruno casually commits a shocking atrocity, one that establishes him as not merely a selfish, immature jerk, but actually a burgeoning sociopath. In what may be the film’s most powerful scene, Bruno, nonchalant as always, tells Sonia what he has done. His frightening detachment, his lack of remorse or even sufficient understanding of the impact of his actions, is matched by Sonia’s horror and disbelief. It is a terrible awakening: for the first time, she sees and understands who Bruno really is.
But who is Bruno, really? Is he the callous monster he appears to be, or is there something more lurking inside of him, a glimmer of moral conscience or self-awareness? That’s the mystery of the film, and credit must be given to Renier, whose restrained, ambiguous performance keeps us wondering. He gets better as he goes, and so, for the most part, does L’Enfant: the second half of the film is messier and more eventful than the first, and it culminates in a breathlessly exciting, low-rent chase scene.
But is this really the stunning magnum opus critics have been crowing about? With its grainy, stripped-down aesthetic, day-in-the-life-of storyline, and persuasive dramatic arc, the film is shrewdly crafted for success; it is, in other words, an art-house crowd-pleaser. And whether or not the Dardennes are modern masters, as some have claimed, they are nothing if not savvy protégés. Wearing their influences on their sleeves like badges of honor, the brothers play affectionate homage to some of this past century’s most beloved European auteurs. There are flashes of Truffaut and De Sica, Malle and Antonioni, and, especially, of Robert Bresson, in every scene of L’Enfant. Watching it is like bearing witness to the artistic genesis of its creators: it is the Dardennes’ own personal scrapbook of cinematic inspiration. But can a film so steeped in its own influences, so indebted to its cinematic forbearers, really be a masterpiece? That’s worth debating, but masterpiece or not, L’Enfant is an absorbing tribute.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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