L’Enfant (2005)

The fourth film in the official Dardenne brothers fiction canon occasionally veers into melodrama, but strong performances keep it steady (for the most part).

Jérémie Renier is back, and even though he’s still playing a scumbag (Bruno) he manages to imbue him with enough humanity to gain our sympathies. His life has been wrecked up to now by his bad decisions. His girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) loves him, and both remain optimistic about their situation, taking it more as an adventure than an alarming descent into squalor. When Sonia becomes pregnant, nothing really changes. Bruno continues with his minor theft, while she carries on accepting child benefits, accepting the news of the baby with excitement.

The actual birth changes nothing. It comes and goes quickly in the film as it’s not really that important to the story. We learn that Bruno didn’t visit Sonia while she was hospitalised, but neither of them seem that bothered. In fact, Bruno does not appear attached to the child at all, treating the process of naming of him with complete disinterest. This comes to a head when, while Sonia is going through the process of declaring the birth with the local council, Bruno does something so astoundingly stupid that Sonia actually faints when she finds out.

It’d be wrong to reveal what he does here, but the action does have massive consequences for everyone involved. The way those consequences manifest themselves is the plot of the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the action isn’t as low-key as in other offerings by the brothers Dardenne, and the action veers sometimes into melodrama, especially the scenes featuring Sonia later on in the film. But the strength of their performances, combined with an incredibly talented cast of bit-players, rounds out the film in an incredibly pleasing and realistic way.

There’s differing tensions throughout the film – Sonia’s pregnancy, Bruno’s disinterest in the child combined with his constant get-rich-quick schemes, both of which contribute to his decision half way through the film. After that, it’s trouble with debt collectors, the law, and how Bruno eventually finds an uneasy redemption, which he hopefully uses to turn his life around.

There’s other scenes, peripheral to the plot, that are a joy – the whole scooter sequence is fantastic, from beginning to end, which sets up the film’s ending nicely. It’s everything the Dardenne brothers do best – a realistic story, well performed, with believable characters. The only problem is that the character of Sonia is so annoying that it actually marrs the rest of the film. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but we found her to be too much. She’s not quite as bad as Sally Hawkins‘s character in Happy-Go-Lucky, but she’s dangerously close.

The Artificial Eye Dardenne brothers boxset is released 31st December 2012.
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