L’enfant was my introduction to the Dardenne brothers. The 2005 Cannes Palm d’Or winner was a striking reminder of what film can do: introduce viewers to unfamiliar circumstances and experiences, or provide new ways of looking at the familiar.
The film is shot and directed in such a way that it seems as if someone followed the two main characters–Jeremie Renier’s Bruno and Deborah Francois’s Sonia–with a camera, and covertly filmed this pivotal segment of their lives. It appears so real, so authentic, that the Dardenne brothers’ incredible achievement in capturing a young couple’s reaction to having a child is easy to brush over. And in fact, I initially did.
But as anyone who has stood in front of a camera, or even known a camera is directed his way, knows, it’s almost impossible to not seize up before a camera, to not become extremely aware of your every move. To be able to capture life as it is actually experienced, as this film appears to do, is then an impossibility. Just look at reality TV as an example. Even if left unscripted, when is it ever truly real?
L’enfant doesn’t seem like real life only in style, plot, and characterization, but also in its impressive presentation of its subject matter. Though at initial read, l’enfant, the child, in question seems to be Bruno and Sonia’s new baby, as the viewer sees more of Bruno and Sonia’s very different reactions to becoming parents, it becomes obvious that the true child is Bruno, and this film is not about how the baby radically changes Bruno and Sonia’s lives, but about the immaturity of these two adults.
The subject of adult childishess is very easy to turn into a joke. (Adam Sandler comes to mind.) But Bruno and Sonia are not gross, hyperbolic characters, but completely believable childish people: Bruno stealing for a living and spending every last Euro he has instead of saving up for the future, Sonia playing along with Bruno’s games, staying with him even though he abandoned her while she was in the hospital, biting him and wrestling him and screaming playfully as he chases her. L’enfant shows Sonia and Bruno’s growth in maturity. Sonia’s comes quickly, triggered by Bruno’s ultimate act of selfishness in selling their baby, Bruno’s taking more time. Their growth is incomplete and especially in Bruno’s case, not straightforward–Bruno’s display of maturity in turning himself in when his adolescent partner in crime is captured by the police isn’t completely heroic as it was shown that he had nothing to lose and even some stability to gain from being in jail–but the imperfection, the messiness, the ambiguity render this peek into a young couples’ lives all the more real.