Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have made a career out of chronicling the lives of people who live on the fringes of Belgian society: in trailer parks, under freeway overpasses, in homeless shelters. At their best, the Dardenne brothers characterize a hand-to-mouth existence the way no other filmmakers can; at their worst, they wallow in the repetitive drudgery of their characters' lives until it becomes almost comical. It's true that the brothers' deliberately stripped-down aesthetic is devoid of pretense and all of the other comforting trappings we associate with movie entertainment: a score, fancy lighting, adrenaline-pumping action. But their ultra-realistic shooting style can also trick you into thinking that everything you see on-screen is what real poverty feels like. In the case of L'Enfant, their latest excursion into life in the gutter, that claim seems somewhat dubious.
There are powerful moments in the film, and the grimy, desperate details of the characters' lives do ring true; but the filmmakers have made a fatal mistake in asking the audience to be emotionally invested in the redemption of a man so soulless and sociopathic that he sells his newborn son to a black-market adoption ring without the slightest hint of doubt.
That man is Bruno (Jérémie Renier), a small-time crook in his early 20s who gives new meaning to the term "arrested adolescent." A hopeless capitalist stooge, Bruno spends his panhandling earnings on a new leather jacket; he sublets his apartment to a couple of sleazeballs so he can buy beer and smokes. He's not altogether surprised when his occasional girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) shows up with his baby, just out of the hospital and looking for a place to stay. It's true that Bruno doesn't have much interest in his child, but what he does next is mystifying: He takes his firstborn on a very long walk to a desolate spot where he trades the bundle of joy for a bundle of cash.
Although he gets his son back within a matter of hours, Bruno feels the repercussions of his actions for the rest of the film. The baby dealers demand interest on the returned child, and are willing to savagely beat Bruno each week until they get it. The once-doting Sonia now won't talk to him. And Bruno hangs a teenage buddy out to dry when a purse-snatching incident goes very wrong.
The Dardennes don't comment on Bruno's amoral actions. They maintain an emotional distance until the very end of the film, when we are meant to experience the limitless, gut-wrenching capacity of human forgiveness. As if that wasn't enough of a stretch, the performers indulge in a lot of method-acting tics and mannerisms that you don't see in everyday human behavior, as when Sonia and Bruno make out while holding huge sandwiches in their hands, or when Bruno literally runs into a wall while waiting around for a phone call. And their baby barely makes a sound, even as he's being wrenched from his mother's arms and into the pit of hell. It doesn't help that Bruno and Sonia are two of the most physically attractive low-lifes to grace the screen in years: You start to wonder what their existence might be like if they could just find a decent modeling agent.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 21, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 23. Call 313-833-3237.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.