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L' Enfant

An Unpretentious Social Drama

Winner of the Palme D'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, L' Enfant is the latest film from former documentary filmmakers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Promesse, La, Rosetta, The Son). The Dardenne brothers are little known stateside, except to dedicated cineastes, film critics, and academics. After a prolific career making documentaries (more than 60 documentaries between 1975 and 1995), the Dardenne brothers wrote and directed their first narrative film. Promesse, La. Their subsequent films have steadily won over European critics and audiences, including their first Palme D'Or in 1999 for Rosetta. Working on small-scale, intimate dramas, their latest effort isn't likely to expand their audience stateside, but it should. Viewers chancing a visit to their local arthouse theater will discover a surprisingly intimate, ultimately poignant tale of a flawed character finding, if not redemption, then the possibility of redemption.

When Bruno (Jérémie Renier), a self-centered, materialistic twenty-nothing isn't sponging his girlfriend Sonia's (Déborah François) unemployment benefits, he's either shamelessly panhandling or running petty thefts with his cronies, including Steve (Jérémie Segard), a middle-class teenager who participates in Bruno's schemes more out of the risks involved than any monetary gain. Sonia, however, is pregnant. That doesn't mean Bruno is about to change his life around, even though he promises Sonia just that. When Sonia gives birth to their son, Jimmy, Bruno at first seems content to help her with the parenting, but when one of his associates suggests that Jimmy could fetch Bruno and Sonia a large sum of money, the temptation proves to be too great for Bruno to resist.

Bruno's badly considered decision goes awry, first for his relationship with Sonia who, despite her age, seems eager to provide Jimmy with love and affection, and later for Bruno himself, when the black marketers who brokered Jimmy's illegal adoption want twice their money back for their trouble. Hoping to reconcile with Sonia and make financial amends with the black marketers, Bruno's life slides inexorably toward a series of setbacks, but trapped by circumstance and desperate for a way out, Bruno begins to look for a "big" score ("big" is relative in Bruno's small, unimaginative world).

Selling Jimmy to black marketers occurs early on in the film. The Dardenne brothers weren't interested in setting up obstacles for Jimmy's recovery (it's easy to imagine a Hollywood remake taking an action-oriented approach, with Bruno turning into a heroic everyman as he attempts to recover his son). Instead, the Dardenne brothers focused on the external and personal consequences that flow from Bruno's impetuous decision. Humanists at heart, the Dardenne brothers wanted to follow a petty criminal's growth from selfishness and irresponsibility toward selflessness and responsibility. Of course, viewers' sympathies don't stray far from Bruno. He is, after all, a petty, non-violent criminal, so he stands a better chance of redemption than a more hardened, violence-prone criminal. It works, at least as far as keeping viewers engaged with and rooting for Bruno to prove that viewers' sympathies are, in fact, well placed.

Not surprisingly, the Dardenne brothers have been compared to French filmmaker Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket) for the simplicity and unobtrusiveness of their filmmaking style and socially oriented subject matter (some critics have semi-dismissively categorized their films as "Belgian realism"). Their documentary background is evident in their approach to filmmaking: street locations and buildings, minimal editing, hand-held camerawork, or reframing within dialogue scenes. The Dardenne brothers' style, though, is looser, more organic than Bresson's ever was, who preferred meticulously designed compositions and scene construction through editing, and non-professional actors he could direct to give flat, expression-free performances (the Dardenne brothers seem to prefer relative unknowns, but professional actors nonetheless).

The Dardenne brothers also make their debt to Bresson by borrowing the ending to Bresson's Pickpocket, but the ending in L' Enfant doesn't feel false or forced. Instead, the Dardenne brothers ensure that Bruno has learned in the journey he takes over the course of the film. In both films, the filmmakers prove themselves optimists when it comes to human nature and the ability to change. Like Bresson, though, the Dardenne brothers also seem to believe that human behavior can be only changed through serious, sometimes painful, effort. Even then, redemption isn't guaranteed, but at least it's possible.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars