When I first saw Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's L'Enfant (The Child) at the 2005 New York Film Festival, I didn't completely grasp what it was trying to do. I wrote in my journal at the time, "Beautifully executed, with a powerful story hook, as usual for the Dardennes - but I feel less inevitability in the second half, and the ending seemed a bit obligatory." The principal reason that I was looking for inevitability is that the Dardennes' previous films, and especially 2002's Le Fils (The Son), which immediately preceded L'Enfant, develop their stories with an almost syllogistic rigor. Whereas L'Enfant ejects its ne'er-do-well protagonist Bruno (the superb Jérémie Renier) at the film's midpoint onto the unwelcoming streets of Seraing, Belgium, where he plies his unwholesome trade without noticeably advancing the plot.
On my second viewing, at last year's Dardenne retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, it was suddenly easy for me to accept the structure of L'Enfant on its own terms. My guess is that the Dardennes were thinking of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, where the first part of the novel places the character of Raskolnikov in a psychological or spiritual force field, after which change is effected in him in a subterranean way while he goes about the business of life. Dostoyevsky understood that real change in people is ineffable, and that using drama to express a character's change runs the risk of exposing the change as mere fiction-based wish-fulfillment. In L'Enfant, the Dardennes likewise avoid crystalizing Bruno's moral crisis by giving it dramatic shape, but instead contrive a dramatic pseudo-climax within a secondary story: the alarming scene in which a botched purse-snatching nearly leads to an icy death for Bruno's 14-year-old accomplice Steve (Jérémie Segard, in another standout performance). According to the practices of fiction, our intense response to drama creates within us a small-scale simulacrum of the character's upheaval, and helps make plausible to us the character's subsequent change. That the drama here does not relate directly to the change that Bruno must make points up that the flow of fictional pleasure can only simulate an explanation of change.
L'Enfant certainly does not try to recreate the vivid subjectivity of Dostoyevsky's style, and in fact the Dardennes would be the last filmmakers whom I would nominate for such a task. The cinema lends itself readily to impurity and to the importation of effects from other art forms, but, among great directors, the Dardennes have perhaps the purest conception of cinema. All effects in the Dardennes' films are pegged to the phenomenology of photography, to the exterior viewpoint that the photograph enforces on the most interior events. Even the performance style in the Dardennes' movies (and they are underrated as directors of actors) is calibrated to the limitations of the image in revealing inner life. (Bresson often comes to mind when one contemplates the Dardennes - there's some similarity in the way both oeuvres combine subjective, abstract subject matter with filmic styles that deny us the signifiers of psychological or spiritual revelation. But comparison with the Dardennes highlights how much less pure Bresson's style is, how his direction of actors and his decoupage are conceived in opposition to theatrical or dramatic values and therefore depend upon them.)
The Dardennes' effects are incremental, and the beauty of L'Enfant is in the way that these effects evolve out of a descriptive style. The brothers' remarkably expressive camera work starts from the limitation of a cinéma-vérité handheld viewpoint, and then exploits that limitation to create sudden, surprising compositional shifts. Time and again the camera doggedly tracks a character in closeup, only to pan a few degrees in response to a voice or an event and capture an extreme foreground-background opposition. Just as the camera style conceals its remarkable variety behind its documentary origins, so Renier's performance conceals the character's gradual transformation behind his propensity for dogged forward motion, which takes on only a hint of weariness as Bruno's ebullient street hustle carries him into a long, dark night of the soul.
I saw L'Enfant for a third time on Wednesday on the opening night of the Walter Reade's currently-running Dardenne series (which includes a number of early features, shorts and documentaries never before shown in NYC), and I now think it is the most mature and most perfect of the brothers' films, the one that moves most splashlessly beneath the surfaces of quotidian life. Repeat viewings only enhance the amazing scene of Bruno commencing the business of selling his child: as carefully as we gather clues, watch the elements of the situation fall into place, home in on the exact moment of decision, we remain stymied by the inability of the camera to give us an exploded view of Bruno's thought process, and by Renier's and the Dardennes' unwillingness to playact at rendering the unrenderable.
Is it possible that the Dardennes' aura is too 1990s to capture the imagination of today's art-film buffs? I strongly recommend that all of you camp out at the Walter Reade for the next few days. L'Enfant screens once more there, on Saturday, May 30 at 8:30 pm.