Bright Lights Film Journal

We’re Just Taller Children: On the Dardennes’ L’Enfant

The Belgian humanists’ most Bressonian film to date

With Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest film, L’Enfant (The Child, 2005), we are on familiar territory: the setting of the brother-directors’ hometown of Seraing, Belgium, a depressed industrial city; a youthful protagonist from the underclasses; a narrative structured around a moral choice that the protagonist has to make; and a realist cinematic style, where the use of on-location shooting, non-professional actors, handheld camerawork, and long takes predominate.

For some critics (for example, those at Cahiers du Cinéma), this territory is now over-familiar, with the Dardennes’ (right) use of the same visual and narrative tropes a severe limitation on their skill as filmmakers. I’d take issue with this rather jaded critical niggardliness. L’Enfant may not have the same force, nor offer the sense of excitement that audiences got from the discovery of Rosetta (1999), but it is still a superb addition to a body of work — La Promesse (1996), Rosetta, Le Fils (The Son, 2002) — that counts as among the very best in contemporary cinema.

The Dardennes’ cinema is a realist one that works to uncover and reveal the sense of everyday life as experienced by those at the lowest levels of Belgian society. But this social/political impulse and the films’ naturalism shouldn’t divert us from the almost apolitical humanism in operation at the heart of each film. At the core of each of the Dardennes’ films is a simple, moral choice posed to the central protagonist. In La Promesse, what bonds of obligation should the adolescent Igor (Jérémie Renier) heed — those of his father, or those of the illegal African immigrant to whom he made his promise? Should the title character (Emilie Dequenne) in Rosetta, through inaction, let her kind-of-boyfriend drown in order to secure an underpaid job at a waffle stand? As for Le Fils, the whole tension of the film is drawn from the uncertainty, held right through to the end, of whether Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) will succumb to the temptation to take revenge on the youth responsible for the death of his own son.

In the case of L’Enfant, the film’s story follows the moral journey of the central protagonist to adulthood, taking responsibility for his actions and in a crisis confronted with the need to make the right moral decision. Bruno (Jérémie Renier, the lead actor from La Promesse) is nominally an adult — his girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) has just given birth to a son — but is in essence anything but. Another Dardenne character living on the margins of society, he makes an unsettled living from a series of petty thefts, leading a little gang of young teenage boys.

It’s made abundantly clear that the child of L’Enfant‘s title is not his baby boy that Bruno almost in an act of boredom sells for ready cash, but Bruno himself. A running motif throughout the film is that of Bruno at play — for example, his stone-throwing into the river once Sonia has finally tracked him down at the start of the film. This is swiftly followed by a scene where Bruno and Sonia mock-fight over the car stereo system, seguing into a chase around the car, a soda drink fight, and a tussle in the nearby park — all while baby Jimmy is left inside the car.

Again, while Bruno awaits the phone call to set up the arrangements for selling his baby, he is yet again the child: paddling in the muddy gutter, then leaping up to leave his footprints on a nearby wall. In the dramatic line of events that follow — Sonia’s collapse and hospitalisation and her total rejection of him, Bruno’s buying back of the baby, the police interrogation, Bruno’s beating by the thugs he is now indebted to — the infantilised Bruno disappears for the time being. But then he returns when he sets into motion his petty theft plan with the young Steve (Jérémie Segard). Right before they execute their little bag-snatch, Bruno seems more focused on joking around with Steve. And he’s similarly fascinated with playing with a stick in the water at the river’s edge; it’s significant that we hear Steve calling out “Bruno” long before Bruno himself does.

The Dardennes’ point is clear. Bruno needs to literally grow up, to assume the responsibilities of his situation, above all in relation to Sonia and his son. His scheme to sell the baby is merely one further and more critical instance of a general pattern of immaturity and irresponsibility; and the path of self-discovery and self-growth that he follows in the course of the film is one where he assumes responsibility for the results of his actions: responsibility towards Sonia, responsibility as a father, responsibility for the after-effects of the baby-selling scheme, and responsibility for involving Steve in the bag-snatch.

I’m unclear as to whether the Dardennes are practising Christians, but they do seem at times consciously to be evoking traditional Christian iconography. (I prefer to interpret this as referencing a general Western cultural heritage; there’s certainly — thankfully — no proselytising here.) In the early scene by the river, after the stone-throwing game, we are suddenly given a shot of mother, father, and baby son clasped closely together, reminiscent of classic depictions of the holy family. This underlines to what degree Bruno’s later actions are a betrayal of this archetypal family unit that he forms with Sonia and little Jimmy.

Later, after Bruno and Steve try to hide by the river after the bag-snatch, their immersion in the water of the river has associations with baptism, how the events taking place now are the process — not yet completed — whereby Bruno washes away the sin that he has committed towards Sonia and finally redeems himself. And the way Bruno, after he rescues Steve from the river, carries him up the steps on his back parallels Christ’s carrying the cross to Calvary. It’s a painful, physical embodiment of the psychological/moral struggle that Bruno has to go through.

The path that struggle takes Bruno is to confess to the police and take responsibility for the crime, with the confession being the symbolic act of a final assumption of responsibility for his act of betrayal towards Sonia and the family they form. But it’s not immediate — as Steve is taken away by the police, the camera holds on the hidden Bruno, pausing as he decides which way to go, to escape for himself or to follow Steve. It’s the same image as when, earlier, the camera held on Bruno against the wall of the empty flat while he waited for the exchange of money and baby to take place. Then there was some implication, though never clear, of Bruno experiencing qualms or some sense of the wrong he was doing. And this motif is repeated at the police station as the camera again holds on Bruno as he sits and thinks, before he goes in to confess to the crime.

With this act of confession and assumption of responsibility, you could argue against the Dardennes’ decision to end the film with a coda, of Sonia’s visit to Bruno in prison. However for me, it’s very necessary. On a lesser level, it operates as an explicit homage to Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). Already, the Dardennes’ iconic actor Olivier Gourmet (the father in La Promesse; the waffle-stand owner in Rosetta; the central protagonist of Le Fils) has appeared as a police officer with parallels to the inspector (Jean Pélégri) of Bresson’s film, although Gourmet’s character never develops the father-figure role that Bresson’s inspector does. But this final scene in the prison is a clear allusion to the famous, final scene of Pickpocket where Michel (Martin La Salle) says to Jeanne (Marika Green): “Oh Jeanne, to get to you, what a strange path I had to take.”

L’Enfant‘s final scene is important for the way it marks a return to Sonia. The film begins with her, characteristically for the Dardennes dropping us in media res into the story, shooting down a stairwell as Sonia struggles — in a long take — up the stairs with baby Jimmy in search of Bruno; after the crisis of Bruno’s attempt at selling their baby, Sonia is to a large extent dropped out of the narrative just as she quite literally collapses on two different occasions to the ground; so it’s now quite appropriate that we return to Sonia.

But this is more than a return to Sonia, it’s a recomposition of the family that Bruno, Sonia, and Jimmy formed by the riverbank at the start of the film. In this scene in the prison meeting room, the motif of the family is paramount: as Sonia leaves Bruno briefly to buy a drink from a vending machine, we glimpse a father at the table behind Bruno tenderly touching his daughter. Unlike the Bresson film, no words are needed for the deep, overwhelming emotions that are given expression here as, in the end, Bruno and Sonia cling together, silently weeping. No words but for those we might be inclined to add ourselves: “Oh Sonia, to get to you, what a strange path I had to take.”