I saw my first two Dardenne brothers movies within a week of each other. First was The Son on video; next was The Child (L’Enfant) on film (blown up from video).
The juxtaposition makes me feel like an expert on the Belgian filmmakers. Maybe it’s all coincidence, but I do see a distinctive style. Both films are shot cheaply, often (if not always) with handheld cameras. Both involve parents and children. Both take a matter-of-fact view of characters who have broken society’s most important laws.
Most importantly, both are engrossing character studies worthy of recommendation.
Kids Having Kids
The title refers to the son of Bruno and Sonia, themselves little more than children. They’re probably in the ballpark of 18 years old. We know that Bruno has a mother, and we even get to meet her briefly, but neither Bruno nor Sonia has any real family. They live together under a bridge, and they’ve just had a little boy named Jimmy.
Bruno steals enough money to live on, but has no idea how to save it for a rainy day. On their way to register the baby with the authorities, Bruno sees an exact copy of his leather jacket in a storefront window and offers to buy it for Sonia. Poof, there goes every last cent they had.
Both young parents are blissfully unaware of how bad their situation is. They both seem surprisingly happy. “Carefree,” is probably a good word to describe them. Then again, little Jimmy is only about 2 days old, so maybe they simply haven’t faced any hardship yet. Even Bruno can make money last for 48 hours.
The Black Market
The film’s big development doesn’t happen for a good half an hour, as we get to know the young couple. Soon enough, though, it happens. Bruno decides to sell Jimmy on the black market. To him it’s just another shady deal that earns him enough money to coast for a few days. The scene takes twenty minutes to play out, and by the time Sonia finds out what happened, the film is half over.
She reacts the way any mother would react, and Bruno, slowly, realizes his mistake. He sets out again on yet another of his daily adventures, this time to retrieve the child and return the money.
The Dardenne brothers are competent storytellers, and they do know how to end a movie. I won’t give it away, but L’Enfant ends with some sense of satisfaction that maybe Bruno will grow up. It ends with an image copied from the beginning of the film, dropped into a completely different context.
The Right Size
L’Enfant is shot cinema-verité style. The camera, usually hand-held, spends a lot of time with Bruno. Our sense of time is the same as his, at least viscerally. Another critic pointed out that when he buses across town, we spend a lot of time watching him ride the bus. The sense of immediacy, of being there with Bruno, works very well with the gripping story and the naively dumb characters. This is not a grand story, and one wonders if a “bigger” style would even work for such a story. Probably not.
So perhaps the greatest achievement of the Dardenne Brothers is their own self-awareness. Their films are made on limited budgets, and they seem to know exactly what sort of story works well under those circumstances. If The Son and The Child are any indication, they should continue to deserve success. Let’s hope if success goes to their wallets, they’ll have the presence of mind to shift their focus as well.