Film

Lenfant (2006)

Cynthia Fuchs

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.

L'enfant

Director: Luc Dardenne
Display Artist: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Jérémie Renier, Déborah François, Jérémie Segard, Fabrizio Rongione, Olivier Gourmet
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-03-24 (Limited release)

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.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image