Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Starring: Jeremie Renier
The driving narrative force of the Dardenne brothers' L’Enfant can be summed up in four words uttered by its protagonist, Bruno (Jeremie Renier): “What did I do?” That he doesn’t know the answer to that question would seem ridiculous were it not for the film’s carefully constructed portrait of innocence in the absence of any kind of morality. Bruno is at once the hero and the villain of this story, a character who does something unfathomably cruel and selfish, but who genuinely has no idea that what he’s done is cruel and selfish. With its direct, simple storytelling and the compelling performance at its centre, L’Enfant is an absolutely enthralling film.
The child of the title ostensibly refers to the baby that Bruno’s girlfriend, Sonia (Deborah Francois), has just given birth to, though it could just as easily refer to Bruno himself, who exists in a state of arrested development that only allows him to live in the moment and never beyond. Bruno has no job, making whatever money he can through various schemes and crimes, spending it immediately because he reasons that he’ll always be able to get more. His inability as a provider extends far beyond his mismanagement of liquid cash: after being released from the hospital and making it all the way home with an infant, Sonia discovers that Bruno has rented out their apartment. When she finally tracks him down (acting as lookout for a robbery in progress) and asks him where they’re supposed to sleep now, he casually informs her that they’ll stay at a shelter, although they won’t be able to stay together since the shelter segregates men from women.
It’s a bad start, but it gets worse. While Sonia is out running errands, Bruno decides to find out how much money he could get for the baby on the black market and then sells him. He returns to Sonia with an empty stroller and a pocketful of cash, exclaiming, “This is ours!” and then dismisses her objections to what he’s done by stating that they can always have another baby. Understanding, sort of, that what he’s done is wrong, Bruno must try to come up with a way to get the baby back and return the money to the buyers, as well as coming up with extra money in order to pay off the people who acted as brokers for the original sale.
The power of L’Enfant lies largely in Renier’s performance and the Dardennes' ability to stand back from the action and simply watch it, framing the events with curiosity rather than judgment. As he’s trying, to the best of his capacity, to make amends with Sonia, Bruno reasons that he sold the baby, but she called the police, which to his mind makes them about even. Bruno possesses a child’s understanding of fairness (you hit me, I hit you back), an aspect of his character which is underscored by the fact that some of his exploits in the film are aided by a couple of kids who appear no more than 13, and with whom Bruno ends up having to bargain after he spends some of their share of the spoils. Bruno is a simple character who has no sense of right and wrong and no moral compass and the film is fascinated by him without glorifying him, watching as things spiral out of control around him and he can only stand there, confused as to how he ended up in such a position.
L’Enfant is in many ways a detached film, directed in a stark, straight forward fashion, but its very simplicity is what makes it so spellbinding. It’s a brilliant character study of a man without character and a milieu where everything is a matter of the next hustle. It's an unforgettable film that would be a jewel in any cultural era.