Warning: Plot spoiler ahead.
All the gestures our characters repeat in our films, and all the objects they handle, are the things that make them exist. These are the elements that have to make the viewer feel that something is being born, that a person is in the process of being constructed on the screen.
—Luc Dardenne, 12 May 2005
Bruno (Jérémie Renier) is in love. Or at least that’s what he thinks. A 20-year-old street kid and petty thief, he lives in Seraing, a Belgian steel town, drifting from scam to scam, moment to moment. He dotes on his 18-year-old girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François), blond and delicate and lovely, and when he’s not making her laugh, kissing, tickling or wrestling with her, he’s on his cell phone, keeping track of the latest deal he’s trying to set in motion.
As always in a Dardenne brothers film (Renier has appeared in La Promesse and The Son as well), the camera is mobile and close, so near Bruno and Sonia’s faces that at times it’s hard to tell where they are—save for the pale gray of the sky and the constant cold gloom that lurks on the horizon. When they gaze on one another though, it hardly matters. She kisses him and breathes, more musically than lustfully, “I want to sleep with you.” Bruno considers the possibilities: finding some money for a room, or taking a room at the shelter, where men and women are separated. Their pondering is brief, vague, untroubled. And so, for a precious few minutes, the film appears to be headed somewhere new for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, perhaps youthful romance, perhaps a sweetly naïve parenthood.
For indeed these children are parents—of eight-day-old Jimmy. Sonia arrives home from giving birth to discover that Bruno has sublet her government-assisted apartment. Upset, she finds him Keeping an extra jacket and t-shirt in a shed by the water, he doesn’t attend much to details of daily life: “I find money,” he reassures Sonia, “I don’t have to hang onto it.” Charming, yes, but frighteningly unreasonable.
Bruno’s irresponsibility doesn’t seem to bother Sonia at first, as he easily spends the little chunks of money he “finds” through pawning electronics and jewelry attained with the help of 14-year-old Steve (Jérémie Segard), who steals handbags and cameras for a piece of the feeble “action.” When Sonia admires a jacket in a store window (it matches Bruno’s own exactly), he buys it for her, a sign of their commitment, or at least their similar tastes. After pawning a ring and some earrings, he rents a convertible for a few hours, so the adorable family—baby in blue jumpsuit, Sonia’s blond hair blowing in the wind—might enjoy a drive in the sunshine. It’s only when Bruno does what seems unthinkable that Sonia responds, vehemently.
Winner of the 2005 Palme d’Or at the Cannes, L’enfant takes an abrupt turn that’s not so startling as it initially seems. In fact, Bruno’s apparently unconsidered decision to sell his child is not out of character, but only out of your expectation of his character. More specifically, it counters your expectation of this movie, or maybe most movies: Bruno appears the protagonist, appealing, if dim, not the Law & Order-ish boy-monster who could even conceive such a crime and then need to be tracked down and punished. Instead, Bruno hears of the option from a fence, follows up a day or so later, not so much out of desperation as carelessness and callousness. He needs the money, Sonia won’t mind when she sees the impressive wad of cash. His needs are immediate, and he assumes hers are as well.
And so he takes Jimmy off in the brand new blue pram (for which he paid more money than they could afford), follows a series of shady phone calls, and finds the apartment where he’s to leave the baby and then pick up the cash that’s laid neatly on the jacket on which he’s swathed the child. As he waits in another room, Bruno takes shallow breaths, immersed in shadows, his pale face barely visible. It’s an astonishing, tense couple of minutes, passing too slowly and speedily at once. The camera observes Bruno, without cuts, and then it’s over. He picks up the money and heads back to Sonia with the news.
The simple guilelessness with which he reports—“Where’s Jimmy?” “I sold him”—is almost more upsetting than the deed itself. And here he has a context. Sonia’s eyes go wide, she gasps, chokes, and faints, in shock that her pretty boyfriend might be so completely clueless as to the meaning of his decision. Horrified by her reaction, he carries her to the hospital and figures a way to undo what he’s done. On the payphone to his contact, he explains, though she agreed at first, now she’s changed her mind. “It’s too late,” he mutters into the receiver. “She won’t change.”
And so this is Bruno’s understanding of what he’s done, measured by Sonia’s response, not his own internal gauge. And the film doesn’t grant you access to what might be internal, doesn’t offer a backstory or a personal trauma or some conventional movie explanation for Bruno’s seemingly pathological incapacity to “feel” (though a brief visit with his own mother intimates some learned behavior). Instead, it asks you to watch, to consider, and even to empathize with this child. Certainly, Sonia’s desolation, rage and subsequent refusal to engage with Bruno is more the sort of emotional performance you’re used to seeing on film. But she spends much of this time off screen, leaving you with the emptier, odder spectacle of Bruno.
That’s Bruno with pram. When Sonia refuses to take it and he can’t sell it, he ends up taking the pram with him as he wanders the sidewalks, poking along with this cumbersome, sad reminder of his sin. Though Bruno tries to regain his former footing, in a caper with Stevie that leads to disaster, he is lost without Sonia. Or so he believes. “I love you,” he moans outside her apartment door. “I’m hungry.”
That’s the rub of L’enfant. It offers glimpses of Bruno’s damage, but no more. You can’t feel “better” at any point, whether it involves punishment or reconciliation or brutal confrontation. You can only guess how Bruno’s head is working, how he’s come here, or where he might go.