During the screening of L’Enfant that I attended, a group of ladies in the row behind me tutted and sighed their way through as young Bruno made one foolish decision after another. Normally I might be annoyed by such loud and obvious reactions, but I found myself shaking my head along with them, the same way you would at a kid randomly pressing buttons in museum exhibits, or running up and down escalators. Whenever Bruno (pictured above) sees an opportunity, he leaps on it without hardly a first thought. They are almost always decisions that will make his already poor life even worse, and between our noises of condemnation, we wonder how he got to be like this.
The film begins with Bruno’s girlfriend Sonia cradling their newborn son, Jimmy, as she looks for Bruno and a place to sleep. She eventually finds him wandering around a busy intersection asking drivers for spare change, and when shown his son for the first time, he acts selfishly and irresponsibly. He lives out of an abandoned shack and commits petty crime to make a living; his existence is completely unenviable. Well, not quite. He appears to have a loving relationship with Sonia. But he destroys that when he realises that Jimmy could be worth a bit, and calls up some people who will give him 5000 euros for his nine day-old son.
It quickly becomes clear that the child of the title is not little Jimmy but Bruno. His actions are entirely motivated either by his own advancement or protection. Gradually he gets into more and more strife – first with passers-by in the street, then with more powerful criminals, and finally with the police – he continues to repeatedly make the wrong decision. He endangers not only himself, but his partner and child, and kids he’s roped into his various pathetic criminal enterprises. Many times, we see him tentatively crossing a busy road, as if to suggest that he is adrift in an adult world he thrust upon himself too early.
At no point does he take responsibility, but neither does he dismiss his actions as inconsequential. He knows he should own up, but he can’t bring himself to do so, and the accompanying guilt spurs him to keep behaving foolishly. The catharsis of the final scene, for Bruno and for us, is immensely powerful given what’s gone before. He knows he fucked up again and again, and at last he is opening himself to the forgiveness of others. Had the film ended any other way – say, for example, he ran away from his troubles – it would be infinitely less powerful and truthful. He is laid bare, exposed as the simple, stupid young kid that we’ve recognised all along, and from there we hope he can begin to grow up.
L’Enfant reminded me a lot of Sweet Sixteen, in that it details with the gritty reality of kids getting involved in things they’re too immature to really understand. It’s difficult to say which of the two is the better film. Sweet Sixteen has more complex characters, so I’d probably give it the nod, but there is much to be admired about the directness and clarity of vision in L’Enfant. The Dardennes seek to present a very basic truth in an unusually straightforward (for these times) cinematic manner, and the result is an accurate, perceptive and quite moving tale. It isn’t pretty, but it’s certainly effective.