Amid brutal competition from A History of Violence, Caché (Hidden), and Last Days, the top prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival went to L’Enfant (The Child), a Belgian drama about a 20-year-old hustler who sells his infant son like a bag of weed. The makers of this provocative movie, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, have referred to it as a “love story,” and so it is. It’s also unmistakably a film by the Dardenne brothers, whose earlier Cannes winner, Rosetta (1999), might well be the only love story that ever changed the law: After seeing the Dardennes’ heartbreaking portrait of a girl whose extreme poverty forces her to fish with a broken-bottle trap, a Belgian socialist leader was moved to propose the “Rosetta Plan,” a bill that required companies to offer a minimum number of jobs to the young and unemployed. L’Enfant may not compel government support of deadbeat dads, but it does seem plenty capable of reform. That the movie has a chase scene to rival The French Connection’s hardly hinders the humanitarian effort.
At least among fiction filmmakers, the Dardennes are peerless in their desire to use cinema as a tool of social agitation—maybe because they’re veterans of nonfiction. Since the ‘70s, they’ve made dozens of documentaries that are notable not only for their subjects—anti-Nazi resistance, underground journalism, the Belgium labor strike of 1960—but for the fact that they’ve been screened mostly at union meetings. (Now it’s the international film festival circuit where their work is received most passionately. Go figure.) Focused on the tiniest details of working-class struggle, and shot like vérité docs with shaky cameras and natural light, the Dardennes’ four fiction films have often been regarded as “Marxist”—and not always regarded favorably. A legendarily trite New York Times review of Rosetta complained that the movie “feels claustrophobic”—prompting the question of what a movie about extreme poverty ought to feel like. The Dardennes’ films are tense, to be sure, but also tactile: After you’ve seen one, you may find yourself with a new concentration not only on the materials at hand—the coins, the keys, the bank notes that might be in your pocket—but on what those materials amount to in terms of your freedom to move (or not move) at will.
L’Enfant’s lanky, scruffy blond protagonist is almost always on the go, even if his frantic progress on the mean streets of Seraing, Belgium, scarcely measures more than the distance from hand to mouth. As the film opens, we discover that Bruno (Jérémie Renier), a panhandler and petty thief, has traded his apartment for a hat and a jacket, leaving his girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François), fresh out of the maternity ward, clutching their wailing newborn and needing shelter. Bruno isn’t cruel, just horribly clueless. Early on, the Dardennes’ camera momentarily catches this young family in a sweet three-way embrace, and spendthrift Dad even springs for a stroller at one point, but we sense that the grown enfant is being wheeled in some other direction. “Only fuckers work,” Bruno says to Sonia when she suggests that he could get a job as a handyman.
In this primal environment, Bruno’s cell phone functions as a kind of umbilical cord, keeping him tied to his survivalist habit; from out of nowhere, he makes a deal by phone to sell nine-day-old Jimmy on the black market for a wad of Euros, then he appears genuinely surprised when Sonia doesn’t buy his argument that they can simply make another baby to replace the one he’s just hocked. Obviously, Bruno doesn’t have much sense of the rules of family, but his hard-knock life—spent, we might suppose, in the absence of family—has given him a certain logical respect for the inertia-based laws of cash flow and commodities exchange. As Bruno scrambles to recover the baby (and Sonia’s love), enlisting another poor kid in a purse-snatching scheme gone awry, the Dardennes push our sympathies into unexpected, even undesired territory. Helplessness is relative in this family drama. But what does it mean for us to see a malnourished 20-year-old as an “at-risk baby”? At what point should age make one ineligible for public support?
L’Enfant is hardly the only recent drama to use absentee fatherhood as a way of exploring larger questions of guilt and responsibility—another disturbing trend for us to blame on the war, perhaps. But its level of compassion, never to be confused with mere sentimentality, might be matched only by the Dardennes’ other masterfully ethical melodramas. The brothers reportedly got the idea for the film in 2001 while shooting The Son: They saw a young mother strolling a baby through the streets of Seraing and found themselves wondering about the “missing character”—the father. The filmmakers’ concern for the underprivileged extends even (or especially) to those they cannot see—and their gesture is inspiring. Tough as it is, L’Enfant nudges both its protagonist and its audience toward unlikely affection. No wonder the brothers call it a love story.