Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
The films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne attract superlatives as readily as they do Palme dOrs. Urgent, disciplined and impassioned, these Belgian brothers body of work is one of the miracles of contemporary cinema.
All set in the industrial town of Seraing, their films share a now-familiar series of virtues and characteristics. Within fictional narratives that move and feel like documentaries the actors are forever trying to outrun the fleet-footed cameraman, occasionally succeeding characters at societys lowest rung confront ethical dilemmas, provoking fundamental questions about what it means to be human. While this might make the Dardennes output sound unbearably worthy, films like Rosetta which marked their first Cannes triumph in 1999 have more dramatic tension than most Hollywood thrillers.
Last May, the Dardennes won their second Palme dOr for LEnfant. They described the image that inspired their new film a young mother aimlessly pushing a baby stroller on the streets of Seraing.
"What really struck us is that she was so young and alone and pushing that stroller with such violence," says Luc Dardenne, the quieter of the two brothers, who otherwise have the same gracious manner. "She was pushing the stroller as if she wanted to get rid of it, as though she was trapped in a story she didnt want to be in. Seeing her helped us link up with old obsessions, old bits of stories that we had in our minds."
LEnfant may have started with this girl and her newborn but the question of who exactly is the child of the title is left open to interpretation. The smart money is on the babys father, Bruno (Jérémie Renier, who also starred in the Dardennes 1996 breakthrough La Promesse). A seasoned street youth and petty thief who leads a gang of even younger thieves, Bruno is affectionate toward Sonia (Déborah Francois) but he soon makes a very bad decision he sells the kid to some gangsters. Though the act may sound unconscionable, the Dardennes do not pass sentence on Bruno. Instead, LEnfant encourages us to see how such a choice became possible for Bruno and how he deals with its ramifications.
"A movie is not a court of justice," says Jean-Pierre Dardenne. "We try to make it so that the viewer feels many things about Bruno. When you see him selling the child, you think, No this cant be, this is impossible. But then the more you see him, the more you realize hes not just a bastard. You are forced to try to understand the character."
It was equally important not to present any of the characters as straightforward victims.
"When theyre victims, anything they do can be justified," says Jean-Pierre. "Bruno didnt have to sell the child to survive he lives in the moment and he wants to profit or exploit everything he sees around him with no responsibility to anyone. Hes a child of todays society."
Yet, perhaps the most compelling aspect of LEnfant, like the Dardennes other features, is that it doesnt place its stock in easy cynicism. While so many gaunt art-house films rest on the assumption that people, faced with difficult choices, will always do the wrong thing, these characters struggle to find another way. For Jean-Pierre, their objective as filmmakers is to show viewers "how people or characters can be in situations where they could kill each other"
"Our characters live in environments where law and order are not really present," he says. "Theyre in situations of survival and many things are possible. We try to see how someone who is in this situation chooses not to kill someone or profit from the situation. They can discover the share of humanity that they have, even if it comes after a dreadful act. Thats what were interested in.
"At the same time," he adds, "if you discover that you are a human being, its not like you turn into an angel it shouldnt be easy."