Dir/scr: Jean-Pierre andLuc Dardenne. Bel-Fr. 2005. 95mins
A few square miles of unprepossessing urban landscapecontinue to yield a rich fictional universe in the Dardenne brothers' latestchronicle of life among modern European have-nots.
Filmed as usual in theBelgian industrial town of Seraing, The Child continues the run ofsteely, confident realist dramas that began in 1996 with The Promise(the brothers' third feature) and that won them a Palme d'Or with 1999's Rosetta(The Child also played in competition).
Closer in tone to that filmthan to the challengingly austere The Son (2002), The Child is acomplex, at times emotionally painful story of an artless young couplestruggling to survive at the bottom of the ladder. The film features anundemonstrative but utterly compelling performance by Jeremie Renier, who madehis name with The Promise, and although very much of a piece with theDardennes' other films, it consolidates their reputation as sparing, insightfulstorytellers.
Strong narrative and apowerful emotional charge, added to the brothers' growing auteur reputation,should make The Child a considerable hit with art-house audiences.
The child of the title isJimmy, just born to 18-year-old Sonia (Francois), seen at the start of the filmsearching for the kid's father Bruno (Renier). Bruno, a young petty thiefsleeping rough - having sublet Sonia's flat - is pleased to see her, butmarkedly less interested in the baby. Initially the young couple are inbuoyant, if blinkered, good spirits.
But before long, Brunodecides that he and Sonia need cash more than another mouth to feed, andunilaterally decides to sell the child for adoption. At one nerve-rackingmoment, he visits an abandoned flat to hand Jimmy over; in an even more tensefollow-up scene, he waits in a garage in the hope of getting the child back.
Grim as this scenario mayseem, The Child is anything but sensationalistic; the Dardennes are notinterested in manipulating our emotions. Rather, they want to show us, withoutrhetorical commentary, how life is for people like Bruno and Sonia, and todepict the daily pressures that could lead a young man - cocksure butinarticulate and unable to think beyond the moment - to such a reckless act.
By all reasonable criteria,Bruno should seem a monstrous figure, foolish, selfish and callous. Yet theDardennes bring us close enough to let us understand his behaviour, and towatch him as he begins - however dimly - to question it himself.
The film's subtlety partlystems from Renier's performance. Although he often doesn't give much away, heconveys a nuanced sense of gradual change in Bruno: in the scene of the emptyflat, little registers on his face, but small hesitant tremors tell us thathe's beginning to feel unpleasant emotions that he's unused to. DeborahFrancois has her own key moments at the start of the film, as a waifish and nottoo smart girl still in thrall to her boyfriend's shallow confidence.
As for the ill-used Jimmy,it is a mark of the film's intelligence that we never get a sense of him asmore than a faceless bundle in a romper suit (he is played, in fact, by some 20different babies): this at once precludes any spurious sentimentality orpersonalised horror at the child's treatment, and also allows us to understandthat the child of the title is perhaps less Jimmy than his young father.
Much more narratively driventhan The Father - whose lead Olivier Gourmet makes a brief appearancehere as a policeman - The Child comes to a head as Bruno descends intoan abyss of his own making. The film climaxes with Bruno and a teenageaccomplice (Segard) fleeing after a theft, in a chain of events that finallyallows Bruno to accept responsibility for his actions.
The coda, cathartic withoutoffering any easy payoff, bears out the frequent comparisons made between theDardennes and Robert Bresson: like the hero of his Pickpocket, Brunomight have some redemption in store, or at the very least, begin to grow up.
The film's energy is drivenby the now familiar camera style of the Dardennes and cinematographer AlainMarcoen - held-held and often very close to the actors, sometimes in confinedspaces, and always in harshly drab settings.
The result is aquasi-documentary viewpoint that, while detached, never seems impersonal butrather allows us an unimpeded view of the characters' actions, while theiremotions and thoughts remain harder to gauge. In a remarkable film, theDardennes once again prove that there's still life to be found in hardunvarnished realism, especially when executed with such adult seriousness andcompassion.
Films du Fleuve
Arte French Cinema
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne