PRINT April 2006


THE ARRIVAL OF L’Enfant (The Child), the fourth in a series of closely related feature films from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, offers a welcome opportunity to consider—and indeed celebrate—the Belgian brothers’ achievements to date. Their films are intimately interconnected, both stylistically and thematically, to the extent that there have been hostile murmurings that the Dardennes have not made four films but the same film four times. This is totally unjust: In certain respects, it is true, the films are variations on a set of themes; but the cumulative effect is that each becomes the richer for this, even the most superficial cross-referencing only serving to bring out their diversity.

The source, no doubt, of many similarities among their films, the Dardennes’ production setup is in certain respects unique. Before their international breakthrough in 1996 with La Promesse (The Promise), they had made a number of documentaries and two fiction films (none of which is currently available). They formed their own company, Les Films du Fleuve, in 1994, and they have collaborated on every aspect of filmmaking ever since—the casting, the scripts, the rehearsals, the direction. They work with a resident cinematographer (Alain Marcoen) and editor (Marie-Hélène Dozo), and sometimes with the same actors. Olivier Gourmet has appeared in all four films: He played the lead in Le Fils (The Son, 2002), a part conceived specially for him; had a major role in La Promesse; and took on supporting roles in Rosetta (1999) and L’Enfant. Jérémie Renier is the boy of La Promesse and the young man of L’Enfant, made nine years apart. The close relationship of actor to character is underlined occasionally by giving the character the actor’s name. The Dardennes cast strictly for suitability, irrespective of the degree of professional experience. Their long-standing collaboration testifies to an exceptional degree of fraternal trust and harmony: It is especially difficult to picture any two people directing the same sequence without serious tensions developing.

They make their films where they live, in Liège, often shooting in neighborhoods with which they are familiar. So far they have shown no interest in going beyond their own environment, though this scarcely seems a limitation: The themes and action of the films and the problems faced by their characters are common to any Western country and indeed to any society structured on class.

The Dardennes’ early documentaries are not, as I said, available for viewing, but it would be surprising were there any extreme discontinuity between them and the fiction films, in which the feeling of documentary is pervasive—another aspect of the deep grammar generating the similarities perceived among the brothers’ works. Shooting exclusively on location, using real buildings rather than studio sets (the carpentry school in Le Fils, for example), the Dardennes are consistently true to their roots. Somewhere in the background, perhaps, is the Italian Neorealist movement of the 1940s and ’50s, which was likewise characterized by location shooting, attention to immediate social problems, frequent recourse to nonprofessional actors, and a sense of passionate engagement with contemporary living.

More intriguing to me are the connections between the Dardennes’ films and those of Robert Bresson, who also preferred authentic settings to studio sets, but whose obsession with meticulously precise framing would have forbidden him to use a handheld camera to follow his characters around, a technique increasingly common in the Dardennes’ work after La Promesse. The connections I have in mind are thematic and very far from a matter of simple imitation. Consider, for example, Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) and the Dardennes’ Rosetta, both the films and the characters whose names they take. Mouchette and Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne) themselves have a lot in common: Both are teenagers, with no obvious attractions, generally unloved and unwanted, with nowhere left to go and little hope for the future. Mouchette ends her life by rolling almost casually down a riverbank into the water; Rosetta, desperately needing a job, almost allows Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione) to drown in order to get his. Mouchette’s shockingly offhand suicide is echoed in Rosetta’s hysterical attempted suicide with a gas canister (she is saved by the man she nearly left to drown). There is a closer parallel between Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and L’Enfant: Both films end with prison scenes in which the male protagonists, who have redeemed themselves by confessing their crimes, are visited by the young women who love them. All four Dardenne films, like many of Bresson’s, are centered on spiritual journeys culminating in redemption, with confession as the crucial moment in all but Rosetta: In La Promesse, Igor (Jérémie Renier) finally tells Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) the truth about her husband’s death; Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) in Le Fils reveals to his apprentice Francis (Morgan Marinne) that he is the father of the boy Francis killed; Bruno (Renier) confesses to the police to save his young accomplice in L’Enfant. But between the Dardennes and Bresson there is a great gulf. With Bresson, the notion of redemption invariably carries religious overtones entirely lacking in the Dardennes’ films (though the central character of Le Fils is a carpenter, there is nothing particularly Christ-like about him): What is at stake for Bresson is the character’s immortal soul, and nothing else really matters. The Dardennes are earthier and more practical. With their films, the confession opens the gates to a new possibility of life on earth and, crucially, restored or improved relationships. The thematic similarities between the filmmakers have the effect of foregrounding these far more radical differences.

The four films are interconnected on many levels. All concern lower- or lower-middle-class characters, most of them losers—three (in La Promesse, Le Fils, and L’Enfant) actually criminals, while the fourth (Rosetta herself ) performs one of the meanest acts in the whole of cinema (snitching on the only person who cares for her because she wants his job at the waffle stand), and all are treated sympathetically. Igor is introduced stealing money from a rich old lady in La Promesse; in Le Fils Francis is a murderer; and L’Enfant’s Bruno is a petty crook who sells his own baby. An important aspect of these films is that they succeed triumphantly in making us care about such deeply flawed characters: No one is contemptible, to the Dardennes; all are human, and all humans are fallible. On the other hand, the filmmakers never indulge or sentimentalize their protagonists. The films carry them to the point where they must confront what they have done and face the consequences.

The films are never allowed to culminate in facile “happy endings,” only tentative and uncertain new beginnings. While the characters may have begun to confront themselves and their lives, we are given no guarantees, the endings leaving us with the open question, What happens next? When Igor, torn between allegiance to his father and the solemn promise made to Assita’s dying husband to look after her and their baby, at last tells her the truth about the death, she shows no gratitude or even an acknowledgment of all he has done, but simply turns and walks away. After a moment he follows her, and we see them walking side by side, but in silence. When Riquet interrupts Rosetta’s attempted suicide he is trying to harass, not save her, as renewed punishment for losing him his job; it is only when he grasps what she is trying to do that the sound of the offscreen motorbike stops and he comes to her support. End of film: Rosetta’s situation is as desperate as ever, and we are given no promise as to the future of the relationship. When Olivier finally tells Francis he knows he killed his son, chases him out into the woods, and pulls him down, his first impulse is to strangle him. That Francis will indeed become a surrogate son is far from guaranteed. Bruno’s breakdown in the prison visiting room, answered by the tears of Sonia (Déborah François) and their embrace, suggests that he has undergone a more thorough transformation than Francis or Rosetta. He, as much “the child” of the film’s title as the actual baby, has at last grown up and begun to recognize his responsibilities, and he will have Sonia’s support. Yet he may still be facing extravagant financial demands from the criminal ring of baby farmers he has been involved with, he has no job to go to, and he will now have a prison record—not exactly “happily ever after.”

The Dardennes are the most democratic of filmmakers. They always treat the spectator with respect, as their equal. To a highly unusual degree we are given our freedom to read and respond to the images. We are never told how to relate to the characters, how to judge their actions, by any of the means Hollywood and most European cinema (even Neorealism!) have conditioned us to. There is no non-diegetic “background” music to give us the “correct” mood, no “dramatic” camera angles or lighting. We are left to judge the characters purely by their actions and their words or by the expressions on their faces, and we are free to make up our own minds about them. The films construct their imaginary spectator as at once intelligent, perceptive, and at least provisionally sympathetic.

In the case of L’Enfant, however, we are likely to be prejudiced against Bruno before we even see him. The film opens with Sonia, just out of hospital, clutching her baby in her arms (no pram, no carry-cot, not even a basket), going to what is supposed to be their apartment and finding it sublet to strangers. When she eventually finds Bruno he is systematically trying the door handles on a row of parked cars. When they meet he is too preoccupied with the possibilities of criminal action involving an unseen accomplice across the street to pay much attention to the child he has fathered beyond asking its name (“Jimmy, like we said”). Near his hideout on the riverbank, Sonia points out that it was her apartment he sublet and that he has bought his smart new jacket with her money. She then pointedly answers the questions he hasn’t thought to ask (“The baby was born at 1:00 am. It didn’t hurt too much”). Why do we not find him contemptible? Partly because he is both beautiful and charming, and his apparently total confidence attests to a kind of innocence to which his criminal activities and thoughtlessness seem curiously irrelevant, but more because Sonia is so obviously under the spell of his attractions. She seems totally nonjudgmental about his criminality and, although she fully understands how shamelessly he mistreats her, she accepts it with no more than perfunctory protest, which he easily converts into play. We register him as amoral rather than immoral. Having a baby is something he can take or leave, without much thought either way. He robs people in order to have money to spend or give away; when it runs out, he can rob someone else. He isn’t greedy, and it’s all rather fun. When Sonia admires the jacket he bought with her money, he promptly buys her a matching one with his own (though stolen), then buys her a pram. He even develops slight qualms about selling his child to a criminal adoption service (“The people he’s going to, are they OK? They have money?”).

The Dardennes are wonderfully perceptive about the workings of the human mind. In the great majority of movies, we are offered reasonably clear information as to what exactly a character is thinking; the Dardennes understand that one seldom thinks anything exactly. Our thoughts, our perceptions, are typically more complicated, even contradictory. In Le Fils, what “exactly” is Olivier thinking when he decides to take on Francis, and what “exactly” are his various reactions to him throughout the film? Does he really want to kill him, in revenge for the death of his own child? If so, is there a clear point at which he changes his mind? Does he begin to see him as a possible replacement for his son? We are never sure, because he isn’t—the contradictions, the conflicting responses, are there from the beginning and have not been definitively resolved by the end. Similarly with Bruno. The idea of selling the baby is not his: It is put into his head by the young woman who supplies him with a new mobile phone. He shows no immediate response beyond automatically dismissing the idea, but a seed is planted and in time it germinates; we feel that it would never have occurred to him spontaneously. His subsequent decision to act on it strikes us as almost literally mindless—no more than a temporary removal of an inconvenience, with no possible repercussions. Bruno goes through the necessary movements almost like a sleepwalker—almost, but not quite: We watch doubts and troubles forming, with the complicated, furtive business of the disposal, for which he is obviously quite unprepared. When he confronts Sonia with what he has done, he is clearly disturbed, though still not prepared to see her, in perhaps the film’s most shocking moment, fall unconscious at his feet. His charming and terrible innocence has made it impossible for him to empathize with the experience of a young woman’s first motherhood.

Dialogue throughout the scenes of the transaction is minimal and purely functional, and this discipline continues throughout the answering segment of Bruno’s desperate attempts to recover the baby. Everything depends on the Dardennes’ disciplined, precise, and objective mise-en-scène, with its sustained balance between engagement and detachment, and of course on Renier’s performance (equalling that years earlier in La Promesse), which should boost him to the forefront of contemporary French-language cinema. But is there a less-than-excellent performance by anyone in a Dardenne brothers movie? Bruno, hitherto seemingly quite unaware of any possible consequences to any of his actions, suddenly finds himself confronted with a real criminal organization altogether different from the petty thieving of his own little gang of two schoolkids, whom he treated like younger siblings.

The moment toward which (we can see in retrospect) the whole film moves—Bruno’s breakdown in the final scene—is surely among the great happy endings of cinema because it is so fully earned. Yet it brings us back again to the Dardennes’ awareness of the complexity of human emotions. What exactly, we must ask, is Bruno weeping for? For behind that moment of release lies a whole complex of events and experiences. Most obviously, there is the immediate presence of Sonia, visiting him in prison apparently unexpectedly: He is weeping both for what he has done to her and for her potential forgiveness (until he began to cry, she had remained quite detached and inexpressive). Yet we have no guarantee that the forgiveness will extend beyond their brief reunion, that it promises a full reconciliation. There is also (negatively) Bruno’s knowledge that, because of him, his young accomplice almost drowned in freezing water, and (positively) the fact of his confession, his acceptance of responsibility, which saved the boy from prosecution and perhaps from a criminal future. Behind the tears, also, is his newfound cognizance of organized crime in all its ugliness and brutality, of the diminished life into which his trivial criminal activities would likely have led him. And, finally, preventing any sense that everything has been resolved, the ultimate scene withholds crucial information. To what, precisely, has Bruno confessed? We hear him admit only to the robbery, to exonerate his accomplice; we never hear him confess to the selling of the baby. Consequently, we also don’t know what awaits him outside prison. Are the criminals who claim he owes them large sums of money still there ready to pounce? Are his tears not only tears of repentance and release but also tears for a very troubling and uncertain future? In any case, for better or for worse, Bruno will leave prison a different person: He has lost forever that irresponsible innocence which was at once his charm and his crippling limitation.

Robin Wood is the author of Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond (1985), Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (1998), and Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (2002; All Columbia University Press).

L’Enfant is currently showing in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. A retrospective of the Dardennes’ films opens at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto on April 2.