Young Petty Thief Slowly Realizes What He Will And Won’T Fence To Survive
All bedraggled young Bruno thinks he needs are cigarettes, instant coffee, a cell phone, black-market SIM cards, and a little cash. The smokes and caffeine keep him wired enough to stay in the perpetual motion needed to steal small consumer products and resell them to various buyers in his godforsaken industrial Belgium town. The cell and SIMs keep him in touch with fences and out of reach from the law. The cash allows him to buy the occasional sandwich and repeat the entire lousy cycle again.
But when his beloved girlfriend, Sonia (Déborah François), understandably freaks when he sells their newborn child in the same way he sells anything he gets his hands on, he realizes he needs more. Bruno—not much acted as embodied by Jérémie Renier—has lost his humanity in order to survive.
We won’t give away much more about what Bruno and Sonia endure after this in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ almost typically brilliant, breakneck-paced, essentially humane L'Enfant, only to assert that not only is this a movie that asks you to empathize with someone who sells a baby like it was an handbag he later jacks from a passer-by, but also leaves you rooting for him as he stumbles his way to possible redemption. Part of the reason this works so damn well is how the Dardennes set up Bruno’s relationship with Sonia before his fall.
The two are so doofishly in love they barely notice—or are simply accustomed to—a nerve-racking, tenuous existence that sees them shuttling from skeezy time-shared apartment to public housing to a collapsed storage unit near a fouled river they overoptimistically call “the shack.” They both look forward to raising their child.
We get a peek into the decent kid hidden in Bruno’s hustler role as he skims his own payday to rent a car so he and Sonia have an actual day off like the wealthy folks they’ll never be. In the Dardennes’ world, “wealthy” means you have enough cash to have a decent idea where you’re sleeping that night. Their idyll is both adorable and pitiable. Even with the car, the best Bruno can imagine for their escape is a run-down park, where they cut capers, hug, and, in general, frolic.
But it leads to the aforementioned life-changing sale of the child. The combination of horrific casualness with which Bruno does this and the tenderness he spares on the child confounds our ability to judge; instead we empathize with the tragedy of a kid pummeled into not knowing know right from wrong, to say nothing of the consequences.
Sonia doesn’t throw a fit when she finds out—she passes out cold. Bruno takes her to the hospital. He gets the baby back, but the scumbags who do this for a living beat the crap out of him over the money lost from the botched baby sale. “You used to steal for yourself—now you steal for us,” one says, instantly making Bruno’s life even more pointless. From now on, it appears his days will consist of nothing more than an ongoing impossible attempt to literally pay for his failing.
The paradoxically beautiful anti-style that makes a Dardennes movie identifiable within one minute of viewing is used here to career-high effect. Shots of scrawny Bruno wandering gray streets are underemphasized, and are all the more achy for it. As he tries to commit enough crimes to keep him alive to commit more crimes and perhaps find some sort of redemption, he hooks up with 14-year-old Steve (Jérémie Segard), and you really see that Bruno himself is barely more than a kid.
As in their previous, almost-as-brilliant Rosetta, the Dardennes use a mode of handheld camera work that not only stays in tight on the characters, but also achieves an actual perch on their shoulders. And although its relentless forward-motion editing sometimes feels like a poverty- stricken Run, Lola, Run, there is, in L'Enfant, no soundtrack music, as there is no music in these people’s lives—just the rumbling moan and hum of a half-dead, indifferent city falling apart.
The filmmaking in L'Enfant is the beauty of the real, raw deal, accurately yet transparently artful in composition and editing. The filmmakers never call attention to themselves—the characters and their stories are everything. If it’s possible for cinema to be so invisible as to allow us to actually see inside characters—to be, in short, literary—this is it.