All young Bruno thinks he needs are cigarettes, instant coffee, a cell phone, black market SIM cards and a little cash. The smokes and caffeine are to keep him in the wired state of perpetual motion he needs to steal small consumer products and re-sell them to various buyers in his godforsaken industrial Belgian town. The cell and SIMs are to keep in touch with fences and out of the reach of the law. The cash is to feed himself on the occasional sandwich and allow him to repeat the entire lousy cycle again.
But when he sells his newborn child in the same way he sells anything he gets his hands on, and his beloved girlfriend Sonya (DÃ©borah FranÃ§ois) understandably freaks, he realizes he needs more. Bruno (not so much acted as embodied by JÃ©rÃ©mie Renier) has lost his humanity in order to survive.
We won't give away much more about what else Bruno and Sonya endure in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's almost typically brilliant, breakneck-paced, essentially humane L'enfant. Suffice it to say that this is a movie that not only asks you to empathize with someone who sells a baby like it was the handbag he'll later jack from a passerby, but leaves you rooting for him as he stumbles his way toward possible redemption.
Part of the reason this works so well is the way in which the Dardennes set up Bruno's relationship with Sonya before his fall. The two are so doofishly in love that they barely notice ' or are simply accustomed to ' their nerve-wrackingly tenuous existence, which sees them shuttling from skeezy time-shared apartment to public housing and a collapsed storage unit near a fouled river they over-optimistically call 'the shack.â?� They both look forward to raising their child.
We get a peek into the decent kid hidden within Bruno's hustler exterior as he skims his own payday to rent a car ' that way, he and Sonya can have an actual day off like the wealthy folks they'll never be. (In the Dardennes' world, 'wealthyâ?� means you have enough cash to have a decent idea where you're sleeping that night.)
Their idyll is both adorable and pitiable. Even with the car, the best escape Bruno can imagine is to a run-down park, where they cut capers, hug and generally frolic.
But that escape also leads to the aforementioned, life-changing sale of the child. The combination of the horrific nonchalance with which he does this and the tenderness he spares on the child confounds our ability to judge; we now fully get that Bruno has been pummeled into a state of not knowing right from wrong (to say nothing of consequences).
Sonya doesn't throw a fit when she finds out ' she passes out cold. He takes her to the hospital. He gets the baby back, but the scumbags who do this for a living beat the crap out of him, and, in what could be viewed by those so-inclined as an acidic commentary on World bank-style capitalism-gone-nihilistic, inform him that 'you used to steal for yourself; now you steal for us.â?� This view is underscored by the Dardennes' use of Belgium as your everyday EU state where everybody ' shop owners, restaurateurs, mothers, you name it ' is on the take just to get by, and has no hopes of anything grander.
The paradoxically beautiful semi-anti-style that makes a Dardennes film identifiable within one minute of viewing is used here to career-high effect. Shots of the scrawny Bruno wandering the gray and faded-color-signage streets are underemphasized, and are all the more achy for it. As he tries to commit enough crimes to keep him alive (to commit more crimes?), he hooks up with 14-year-old Steve (Jeremy Segard), and you really see that Bruno himself is barely more than a kid.
As in their previous, almost-as-brilliant Rosetta, the Dardennes utilize a mode of handheld camera work that seems intended to not only stay in tight on the characters, but to actually perch on their shoulders. And although its relentless forward-motion editing sometimes suggests a poverty-stricken Run, Lola, Run, L'enfant contains no soundtrack music, just as there is no music in these people's lives ' merely the rumbling moan and hum of a half-dead, indifferent city falling apart.
It's the beauty of the real, raw deal, accurately yet transparently artful in its composition and editing. The filmmakers never call attention to themselves ' the characters and their story are everything. If it's possible for cinema to be so invisible as to allow us to actually see inside characters ' to be, in short, literary ' this is it.
(Opens Friday, June 2, at Regal Winter Park Village Stadium 20, 407-628-0035)