A mother is carrying her new-born baby back to her apartment. She holds the little bugger, named Jimmy, close to her breast and makes her way up the stairs and knocks on the door. To her surprise, there are two strangers having sex in her apartment. Her boyfriend has lent the room out for the day for some extra dough. She leaves the apartment building and searches for the boyfriend/father. In any other world, this would be the set up for Lifetime’s April movie of the month. Don’t fret: We’re in the world of the Dardenne barothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc), two men who can turn just about anything into a pondering on modern social spirituality.
The young mother in question is Sonia (Déborah François) and she finally finds her boyfriend, Bruno (Jérémie Renier) on a street, scheming to rob a man with two teenagers. Bruno sees the baby as a passing interest, something that makes Sonia happy so he is happy. Bruno is not smart and he resorts to crime often, but he is by no means a bad person; he sees most things in terms of how much he can get for them. Therefore, when he is left alone with Jimmy, his impulses lead him to sell the child on the black market. When he shows the wad of money to Sonia, she faints and calls the cops on her awakening. Bruno gets the child back, but not without owing money to some local hoods, which forces him into robbery again with his frequent partner, Steve (Jérémie Segard). Article continues below
It is obvious from the look of Bruno and Sonia’s apartment and the graceful, heartbreaking ending that the Dardenne brothers are riffing on Robert Bresson’s landmark Pickpocket. Where Bresson went for calculative mise-en-scene and often profoundly flat performances, however, the Dardennes have a natural expression of realism in all their work, seeing the distanced hero as a waiting vessel amongst the busybodies of the world. In what has become a calling card for the brothers, we often see Bruno alone and still while something else in the foreground or background is in immense activity (Bruno waiting against a wall as a soccer game rages in a playground, any shot of him next to a highway). Their history in documentary filmmaking helps here, using a handheld camera throughout. The look of the film helps us to see the world in all its hurry, the way Bruno sees it.
To be completely frank, a film like this is so rich and layered that no amount of writing will do it justice. Both Renier and Francois give performances of deep evocation and the film does well to keep its tight concentration on both of them. The child that the title refers to could literally be any one of these characters: Bruno’s inability to stop being one, Sonia’s struggle to leave it behind, Jimmy as an entity. The literary, piercingly honest tone of the film never cheats by letting Bruno get off from any of his deeds and crimes, including the breathless purse-snatch and pursuit scene that seems to be filmed all in real time. L'Enfant constructs a world of such social simplicity but the spiritual undertones are thick and meatier than anything that’s likely to be released this year. Bresson, wherever that drab genius is, would be infinitely impressed.