Note: This review was originally written May 6th, 2010
L’Enfant, directed by the Belgian Dardenne brothers, is a disturbing and engaging film told in a moderately neorealist fashion. It observes the relationship between Bruno and Sonia, a young couple who clearly care deeply for one another. Once the film establishes their relationship and their current state of poverty, it primarily deals with the consequences following a devastating decision made by Bruno. Bruno’s emotional journey, or rather, the journey to the start of an emotional journey, is what makes L’Enfant such an engaging and powerful film.
Bruno and Sonia are both very young and very poor. She has just given birth to Jimmy and the couple has to figure out how to support the child in the midst of continual poverty. Bruno leads a gang of child thieves who bring him goods which he sells, giving the children a piece of the profits. Sonia is very happy about Jimmy despite their financial situation. Bruno however, seems unwilling to acknowledge the child as if he is incapable of comprehending that he is a father. Sonia is so excited that she hardly notices Bruno’s indifference. Despite Bruno’s lack of self involvement as a father, it is clear that he and Sonia care very much about each other. There are scenes that establish the way they interact and the playfulness that they inhabit as a couple. Once Bruno makes a startling decision, the film focuses mainly on him.
The Dardenne brothers observation of Bruno and Jeremie Renier‘s beautifully underplayed performance is the main reason this film is such a success. Bruno is uniformly frustrating throughout. He is immature and irresponsible. He refuses to get a job, saying “Only fuckers work”. The lengths that he is willing to go to and the state he will continue to live in as long as he does not have to get a job are disturbing. Following his decision, the most interesting thing about the film is observing Bruno and trying to figure out what is going on in his head. When is he going to truly understand what he has done? While the events of the film all relate and are critical to Bruno’s arc in the film, his thoughts and reactions and decisions are the most engaging part. The film spends most of its time simply observing Bruno. The Dardenne’s use of moderate ambiguity in relation to our view of the main character is the strength of the film. The directors and Renier give us enough to keep us involved without making it clear what he is going through. The events of the film are secondary in that they serve the films main focus which is to observe how Bruno handles each situation.
As was stated before, The Dardenne brothers pace the film out with a very observational tone. Moments are lingered on in almost entirely handheld shots. They know how to represent Bruno and Sonja as a couple and give everything a very realistic feel. They also know how to build tension especially towards the end when Bruno and one of the kids who work for him run into trouble. Most importantly though, they know how to shoot Bruno; with distant shots, whether it be long or medium and rarely with a close up. The camera always keeps tight on Bruno though without invading his space, thus making it observational.
While Bruno is frustrating, you root for him; not to get out of the situation he is in but to make that emotional first step. We want him to be a better person. The entire film works towards this idea and once it ends it becomes clear that the point of this film is to depict the moments and events leading up to that first step towards a long term transformation into hopeful maturation. This is a heartbreaking but wonderful film that ends on an optimistic note in a perfect final scene. It must be said once again that Renier is incredible here, giving one of the best performances in the past 10 years. L’Enfant is one of the most actively engaging film experiences to come along in a while. It is emotional and frustrating but with a dose of optimism in its belief in humanities’ ability to live and learn.