L'enfant (The Child)
"Good Belgian Movie Shock!"
Fifteen years ago, my editor at Time Out magazine thought that headline was so amusing he slapped it on the front cover. I don't remember, but I bet it didn't sell too many copies.
The Belgian movie in that case was something called Toto the Hero, which sadly has never been made available on DVD in this country. But the gag about Belgian cinema no longer applies - or at least it shouldn't: the Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, have now won the Cannes film festival's Palme d'Or twice in six years, first for Rosetta (1999) and again last year for L'enfant. The film they made in between, Le Fils (The Son) had to make do with the Best Actor prize in 2002.
In short, the Dardennes might properly be ranked among the top five working filmmakers in the world. If they're not particularly well known in the UK, in part that's because film distribution no longer serves subtitled movies very well. (Happily, LOVEFiLM stocks both Rosetta and The Son, as well as their 1996 film, La Promesse).
It must also be said that their films are not starry, glamorous or escapist (but then neither are most Brit soap operas, which doesn't seem to dent their popularity). They started out making documentaries, and in a similar vein to Ken Loach, the Dardennes bring documentary practice to fictional filmmaking, using real locations, long takes and a handheld camera, often situated just over the shoulder of their main protagonist - and with no musical score.
It might seem austere at first, but L'enfant is actually as tightly structured as any thriller. Sonia (Deborah Francois) tracks down Bruno (Jereme Renier) to introduce him to their new-born son, Jimmy (as played by 21 different babies). A modern day Fagin, Bruno lives on his wiles, fencing stolen goods procured by a couple of school kids, doing a deal here, a deal there. Still, he doesn't have more than a couple of Euros to his name. As for Sonia, she's little more than a child herself.
If she's disappointed that Bruno doesn't seem more interested in the baby, Sonia is too in love with her illusion of a happy family to let reality intrude. But intrude it does, when Bruno decides that his son has some worth after all on the black market.
This betrayal is such a shockingly callous act, its ramifications send Bruno's life into a tailspin. Sonia is hospitalised, the police are called, and Bruno desperately tries to make amends - almost killing someone else in the process.
L'enfant is surprisingly suspenseful - there's even a long car chase, which is a first for these directors. Who says you need a score to crank up excitement? The scenes in which Bruno sells the baby, and then later, when he tries to buy him back, may be minimalist in construction, but it's to maximum effect.
As in The Son, the Dardennes are interested here in the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, even in the light of the unforgivable. These are big themes for a seedy story about a couple of street kids, but they're not superimposed; the intensity and rigour of the filmmaking locates the spiritual in these most unlikely circumstances. The final scenes are profoundly moving.
Were the jury at Cannes right to award this the top prize over A History of Violence and Caché? Happily we don't have to choose between them. But if you liked those two studies of bad dads, you owe it to yourself to check this one out too.