A couple tries to pull itself out of poverty by any means in L’ Enfant.
Thursday, May 18, 2006
The haunting Belgian drama L’Enfant recalls other timeless films about human desperation: François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, about a neglected French schoolboy, and Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, about a father driven to commit a crime to escape poverty.
Like those films, L’Enfant’s greatest triumph is inserting viewers into the hopelessness and desperate scramble to survive that define the lives of its characters—who are young, poor, homeless residents of the bleak Belgian steel town of Seraing. L’Enfant, which received the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or in 2005, is a glimpse into lives defined by the kind of quotidian despair that has settled so deeply into its characters’ bones, it has become second nature.
Eighteen-year-old Sonia (Déborah François) wanders the frigid, merciless streets of Seraing clutching her 9-day-old son, Jimmy, to her chest. Sonia’s ultimate quest is not for shelter but for the baby’s 20-year-old father, Bruno (Jérémie Renier), an endearing but seemingly conscienceless petty thief.
Bruno is a kind of Fagin with a group of younger schoolboys working under him. His crimes are amateurish, and he not only pulls off robberies but also begs for money on the street and sublets Sonia’s apartment for some quick cash. When Bruno meets his son for the first time on a busy street, he is so distracted by an unfolding scam that he can’t even take the time to hold the child.
When Sonia finally reunites with Bruno, her desperation momentarily lifts. Despite her recent motherhood, her frolicsome relationship with Bruno, expressed in a scene where they tumble like kittens in the grass at a highway roadside, alerts us to their pitifully childlike nature.
Bruno’s small gesture of concern for his family is to find them a bed at a homeless shelter instead of his usual digs, a shack beside a busy roadway. But that gesture of protectiveness is where Bruno’s parenting skills end.
Bruno and Sonia are poverty’s new, most vulnerable face. They live hand-to-mouth, scrambling for their next meal or a warm bed. But they also own cell phones, which, like any contemporary youths, they clearly see as necessities.
Like any of us, Bruno and Sonia are at heart consumers who live in a world where everything is for sale, who act impulsively, unable to deny their cravings. When Bruno sees a flashy leather jacket in a shop window, he insists on buying it for Sonia. He blows his money to rent a fancy convertible for the day.
Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have shared a Palme d’Or once before with 1999’s Rosetta, a similarly-themed film about the desperate and poor. As in that film, cinematographer Alain Marcoen shoots Sonia and Bruno in harsh unfiltered daylight, a hand-held camera intensifying the sense that we are right at their elbows, sharing in their experiences.
In small but telling details, the Dardennes show how excruciatingly hard life has been for Bruno and Sonia and how the mire of poverty means every move forward entails two steps back. Every windfall of cash brings with it a deficit. Every heist becomes a near disaster. Eventually, Bruno commits an act so unspeakable, even Sonia cannot forgive him.
In lives this difficult, you see why something as simple as dinner, a wad of cash in hand or a drive in the country could feel like the greatest good fortune. A cycle of deprivation and small pleasures asserts itself in L’Enfant, making it clear what the moment-by-moment experience of poverty must feel like.
The baby of the film’s title is a symbol of all their vulnerability. In the devastating final scene, Bruno and Sonia seem to experience an epiphany of self-awareness. For a moment, perhaps for the first time, they have stopped their instinctive race for survival, their manic hurry, to recognize the horror and degradation of their lives.
L’ ENFANT ( * * * ½ )
Directed by Jean Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. • Starring Jeremie Renier, Deborah Francois and Fabrizio Ronglone. • R, 100 min. • At the Osio Cinemas.