Young, thatch-headed Jeremie Renier has a paradox of a face. The level eyes are shadowed, the cheeks are hollow and creases have set around the mouth, where his lips tug upward in a chronic grin. The features are too old for his twenty or so years; and yet they also seem unfinished, as if the jackknife
of experience were still carving them. You can see the want of modeling in the nose and chin, squared off by preliminary strokes and awaiting refinement. The plan, perhaps, is to make him handsome–or to forgo boyishness for a rougher effect.
You have plenty of time to think about this face while watching L’Enfant, because the lens stays close to Renier, as it generally does to actors in the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. This, too, is a paradox. The character Renier plays in L’Enfant, like so many of the Dardennes’ protagonists, is a young scuffler of the Belgian streets who sleeps sometimes in the homeless shelter and sometimes in a cardboard box by the river’s edge. He feels no need for a fixed abode; yet the camera’s frame houses him, snugly and perpetually, however restless he becomes.
In the role of Bruno, a petty thief knocking around an industrial town, Renier is so much in motion that he can barely pause to look at his newborn son. When freckled, dirty-blond Sonia (Deborah Francois) tracks him down, having just come out of a hospital he hadn’t bothered to visit, she finds Bruno engaged in his version of multitasking: walking down the middle of a street so he can panhandle from motorists while looking out for a burglary in progress. She shows him the bundle in her arms; he responds with a boisterous sexual overture and a cell-phone call to his accomplices. What’s the kid’s name? Oh, right–Jimmy.
Here, in summary, you have L’Enfant, a film about roads and cell phones, decaying buildings and people who ought to be budding, indifference masked by buffoonery, the belief that money just floats around. When concentrated in and around a soft kid who mistakenly thinks he’s tough, these elements naturally produce the crime on which the plot turns: Bruno sells his son to unknown traffickers in exchange for a wad of cash.
An item for the tabloids, you might think. What could make you care about it, other than the peculiarities of an actor’s face, or the notion that you, too, might have been a Bruno, but for the grace of God and a grasp of cause and effect? There is no question of your identifying with the character; if the Dardennes give their sympathy to anyone, it’s Sonia. She’s the figure you see first (in one of those tight, hand-held closeups), the one who takes you through the streets and leads you to Bruno; and after his story is played out, she’s present again in the last shot, to inspire and share the single, profound moment of catharsis that concludes the film. But she’s not the one on whom L’Enfant dwells. The film lingers on Bruno–and simply by doing so, it justifies this worthless man as a worthy central character.
Once he’s decided to sell the baby, the rhythm of L’Enfant changes; the jumpiness of the early scenes gives way to a steadier pace as the camera follows Bruno to the outskirts of the city, to his rendezvous with the unseen traffickers. The Dardennes want you to experience the lengths to which he’ll go for his crime. And when he gets to the scene of the exchange, where he stands alone in a dimly lit apartment, the Dardennes want you to know what it’s like for him to wait, for once in his life. Half in shadow, he listens anxiously for the buyers to come and go. (It’s easy to hear footsteps in a Dardenne film; there’s never a music track, only ambient sound.) After long, long moments comes a brief interruption–Bruno rushes toward his money. And then time stretches again, as the Dardennes insist on showing Bruno’s return to the city.