Belgian film L’Enfant, winner of Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme D’Or last year, is a subdued and thoughtful arthouse offering, even if its end is conventional and unconvincing.
In L’Enfant, directors, writers and brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Les Fils) give an insight into the flawed psyche of their hero Bruno (Jérémie Renier, San Antonio), a 20-year-old no-hoper who survives on his wits and street smarts. Practically homeless, Bruno regularly sleeps under a bridge covered in cardboard boxes and lives hand to mouth on money from petty theft. When his girlfriend Sonia (newcomer Déborah François) gives birth to their first child, Jimmy, Bruno sees an opportunity to make a quick buck by selling the baby. Bruno enters the transaction seemingly unaware of its consequences, but later suddenly finds his life spiralling out of control.
L’Enfant is a journey of emotional responses from the viewer towards the protagonist. At first Bruno displays an endearing immaturity that makes him likeable. But once he decides to sell Jimmy, our reaction is one of disgust and anger. By the end of the film the audience is encouraged to see Bruno as misguided and reformed, and to sympathize with his poor judgment.
Renier’s performance is heartfelt and human. We really believe he is the small-minded character that he portrays. Renier gives Bruno moments of tenderness and vulnerability as we see his intellectual simplicity when he entertains himself by stomping in the mud. But Bruno is perhaps more complex than the Dardenne brothers have given him credit for—Bruno may come to some understanding of the damage he causes to Sonia and Jimmy, but what is he is sorry for? Is he genuinely remorseful for his actions or is he just sorry about the consequences? L’Enfant would be a stronger film if this had been left to the audience to decide, rather than trying to force a particular conclusion.This is a typical arthouse offering in feel and tone. The landscape is bare and industrial, the shots intimate, the script minimal and there is no soundtrack. At moments, L’Enfant is extremely slow, forcing all our concentration on to Bruno and how he moves through his life.
That said, the film is a thought provoking one. It’s gentle, serious but still a little wry. It’s enjoyable to watch, even if the ending is abrupt, and it’s probably just a matter of personal preference whether to buy into Bruno’s final conversion and redemption by film’s end. We didn’t.