The poor we will always have with us. A good thing, too, at least for the brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who would be out of a job otherwise. The two Belgian filmmakers specialize in crafting harrowing movies about the wretched and unlucky, about the victims of a system of exploitation that filters down from the indifferent cruelty of society at large to the smallest social units — the family and couples in love. A dreary ideology, perhaps, but in films such as La promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), and Le fils (2002), the brothers explore twists in the formula that also twist the heart.
Marxist inclinations aside, the Dardennes never mistake these losers for saints. Bruno (Jérémie Renier, who resembles alternately Steve McQueen and Richard Speck), the protagonist of L’enfant, has a feral charm but few other redeeming qualities. About 20, he’s already doomed, and who cares? His girlfriend, Sonia (Déborah François), is in the hospital giving birth to his son and he sublets her apartment for money to buy a sporty leather jacket and a narrow-brimmed fedora, very stylish wear for sleeping on the riverbank. When she gets out he’s too busy panhandling and, Fagin-like, organizing 10-year-olds for robberies to acknowledge the blessed event. The only interest he shows in the baby is to use him as a prop for extorting spare change.
But Bruno and Sonia are in love; you can see it in their horseplay and tenderness. They are, of course, little more than children themselves. Despite their blighted circumstances, they exude vitality and joy until Bruno comes home one day and casually tells Sonia he sold the baby.
Big mistake. Who knew she’d be so upset? The rest of the movie consists largely of the baby buyers, the cops, and Sonia kicking the crap out of Bruno. At times poor Bruno’s punishment for his thoughtless crime verges on the sadistic. Compared to the ambiguities and heartbreaking irony of the Dardennes’ previous movies, the suffering here sometimes takes on the simple-mindedness of melodrama.
Such quibbles fade before the film’s limpid cinema veríté illuminating the grimy alleys and dreary interiors of desperate Seraing, the Belgian equivalent of Flint, Michigan. This Zola-esque naturalism conceals a formal rigor, a harsh symbolism and symmetry that adds grace and dignity to the meanness.
The opening and climactic episodes both begin with a figure carrying a child up a flight of stairs to an unwelcoming apartment, evoking the plight of another beleaguered family in the Gospels. Each time Bruno’s crass and desperate schemes for betterment turn into catastrophe, he’s left pushing a useless vehicle — an empty perambulator or a defunct scooter — underscoring the futility of material possessions. Few filmmakers have the Dardennes’ gift for rendering the pathos of a physical object; what happens with a leather jacket can bring tears to your eyes.As for Bruno, tears are hard to come by. But like the Dardennes’ other films, L’enfant dramatizes not just the moral bankruptcy of the system but the individual’s potential for redemption. It attains a Dostoyevskian clarity as it demonstrates that as bad as stupidity and indifference can be, love hurts even worse.