Child, The (L’Enfant) (2005): Dardenne Brothers Cannes Fest Prize Winning Drama

Cannes Film Festival 2005 (World Premiere)–The title character in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Child (L’Enfant), winner of Cannes top prize, is not the baby that’s being carried around, sold, and rebought, but his immature father, Bruno, a hoodlum who could hardly take care of his own needs and problems.

The film is splendidly acted by Jeremie Renier, who had earlier excelled in Dardennes’ best film, The Promise (La Promesse) and Deborah Francois, as his girlfriend. A coming-of-age morality tale, The Child is in the vein of but not as good as Rosetta, the Belgian brothers’ 1999 Palme d’Or winner.

Even so, the film boasts the signature style of the Dardennes, who began their careers in documentaries, and infused their features with hand-held restless camera, fast-pacing, and nonjudgmental approach that had marked their non-fictional work.

The complaint of critics who had reservations about The Child was that the Dardennes are repeating themselves, doing in this film what they have done better in La Promesse and Rosetta. Perhaps. Yet in a year of few genuine highlights, and mostly mediocre films, The Child stood out, and probably deserved to win a major award, if not the Palme d’Or.

Like most of the Dardennes films, The Child takes its time to deliver its emotional punches, but the last scene is so powerful that it redeems some of the more tedious sections in the middle.

Story begins in the hospital, where the 19-year-old Sonia (Deborah Francois) gives birth to Jimmy. Upon return from the hospital, Sonia finds out that Bruno had sublet their apartment for some quick cash for a couple of days, which forces the young couple and their baby to sleep in a homeless shelter or outdoors.

It soon becomes clear that neither Sonia, who’s slightly more emotionally mature, nor Bruno, are psychologically ready and prepared to deal with their baby. Very much kids themselves, they communicate and play games that kids play, chasing each other, irritating each other, fighting and reconciling.

The jobless Bruno is a petit criminal, exploiting school children in schemes to steal small change from innocent people on the street; main crime involves snatching a purse from a pedestrian woman while riding their motorbike. Stolen goods are then sold, often for as little as several euros, and profits unfairly distributed by Bruno.

When Bruno gets broke again, he decided to sell Jimmy, leaving the infant in an abandoned apartment building, while collecting the fee in another one. It’s an almost impersonal transaction in which the hoodlum who buys the baby remains anonymous. When Sonia shockingly finds out, she becomes catatonic and refuses to see or even talk to Bruno.

Fearing that she might inform the police, and beginning to feel pangs of his otherwise dormant conscience, Bruno decided to retrieve the baby, in a transaction that calls for a lot of cash. Last reel records Bruno’s gradual moral reawakening, which involves a brave, self- sacrificial act that concerns his much younger buddy.

Thematically simpler than the Dardennes’ previous films, The Child lacks the rich and dense subtext of La Promesse or Rosetta. But the filmmaking is superb, on par with that of the former works.