When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
1 Corinthians 13:11
This was my first encounter with a film by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, but I hope it will not be the last. Like a number of other European filmmakers, they forego all the cinematic embellishments that direct a viewer’s feelings and thoughts. There is no music, no dissolves or creative camera work, and little dialogue—indeed the words uttered by the two characters probably would take up no more than three or four pages, the characters making a Gary Cooper cowboy seem like a motor-mouth. As a result, viewers will come away remembering what happens to the characters, especially Bruno (Jérémie Renier), rather than the way in which the story is told.
Sonia (Déborah François) has just come out of the hospital with her new baby, when she discovers she cannot get into her apartment. During her absence her boyfriend Bruno has subletted it. Frantically searching for him, she finally encounters him at a street intersection where he is panhandling car drivers. He kisses her, but pays scant attention to their new child Jimmy. He has marked a male shopper as the next victim for the young boys under his direction but when the man emerges from a shop, Bruno, distracted but for a moment when Sonia asks him to hold their baby, loses sight of their mark. The two settle into a homeless shelter for the night, with Bruno continuing to ignore little Jimmy.
Now if you think L’Enfant is going to follow in the wake of such films as Tsotsi or Three Men and a Baby, you will be disappointed. The filmmakers have no interest in such sentimental themes as a child transforming the self-centered, though we do discover that they are interested in transformation, but it is a change brought about by deep and bitter anguish and failure instead of a child. To Bruno everyone is important only to the extent of what they can bring for him. He values only money, though only for the moment, and he regards work as only for “suckers.” Their child has no value until the next day when, given its care while Sophie waits in a long welfare line, he gets the idea of selling the baby. Contacting a black market dealer, he is soon directed to a vacant apartment where he is to leave the baby in exchange for a sack of money.
Bruno is totally unprepared for Sonia’s reaction when he tells her matter of factly that he has sold the baby, and that they can easily have another one. The mother goes into shock, so great that she cannot be revived, and must be taken to the hospital. We are uncertain whether he is more worried about her health or what she will tell the authorities. He rushes out to telephone his contact, and manages to get Jimmy back with a return of the money at the same apartment where he had sold him. Outside, however, two thugs beat him up, telling him that he now owes almost 6000 euros for the money that they lost in the transaction. There is no arguing with them. Jimmy must turn over virtually all of the money that he and his boy helpers manage to steal for years to come. Plus, there is some explaining to the police, who are summoned when the hysterical Sonia wakes up and explains why she went into shock.
The future is bleak, Bruno not being able to get Sonia to speak to him, and his crime career enmeshing him in even greater trouble. Then, during a robbery, come an event and an act by Bruno that surprises the viewer, and leaves us wondering about what has happened and what his eventual fate will be. The filmmakers do not cater to our desires to know more, leaving us with a scene that impacts us deeply and requiring us to figure out matters for ourselves.
Note: The following contains some spoilers, so read after you see the film.
1) What do you think of Bruno during most of the film? Why do you think Sonia stays with him?
2) The film provides no back-story for him, but what do you think his childhood must have been like?
3) What does the film title lead you to think the film will be about? Compare it to Tsotsi or Three Men and a Baby. Who do you think might be “the child” of the title, Jimmy or Bruno? Although from different social classes, how are Bruno and The Break-Up’s Gary Grobowski similar?
4) Which do you think Bruno was motivated to get back their child, his fear of the police, or his concern for Sonia? How are his feelings for her the beginning of his progress toward redemption?
5) Do you think Bruno has ever looked beyond the moment for his needs or for the consequences of his acts? How might his beating and subservience now to the black market gang force him into an awareness of the future, of the consequences of his acts?
6) Were you surprised at his caring for young Steve, and especially at Bruno’s visit to the police station? Do you think Bruno has arrived at the stage in his spiritual development described by the apostle Paul? How is this unembellished film one of hope, given how Bruno has been shown up to this point?
7) Did you wish for more at the end of the film? How is the restraint of the filmmakers a strength, rather than a weakness, in this film? Federico Fellini once stated in an interview that he did not like films in which everything is wrapped up at the conclusion of the film. This trivializes the problem and robs the audience of the opportunity to grapple with the problem, because it has already been resolved. What do you think of this opinion? Do you think he would approve of many American films—or of this one?