Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have finally given Jeremie Renier a kid of his own, and he’s a disaster. A decade after the image of the then fifteen-year-old cradling an infant crystallized the child-is-father-to-the-man organization of their breakthrough La Promesse, their Cannes-feted L’Enfant (The Child) recasts the now shaggy, acne-splatterd twentysomething as Bruno, the less fit half of a newly minted hand-to-mouth parental unit.
With shoulder-mounted camera and without musical score, the Dardennes employ a deceptively verité method for their well-planned, detail-oriented character arcs. Little Jimmy’s arrival initially doesn’t seem to disrupt Bruno’s life at all — he still flirts aggressively with girlfriend Sonia (Deborah Francois, debuting) and fences jewelry for juvenile accomplice Steve (Jeremie Segard) — but after his narcissistically pragmatic decision to, why mince words, sell his baby on the black market, recouping the funds demanded in exchange for Jimmy’s return becomes his quest for redemption. (In the Dardennes’ universe, emotional transactions are conducted in petty cash.)
L’Enfant inspires equal measures empathy towards a character trying to salvage a sliver of humanity and revulsion at his methods, specifically his exploitation of Steve — that Bruno’s eventual redemption is so compromised, especially in begged comparison to La Promesse’s hard-earned weight-of-the-world optimism, is an inevitable consequence of a protagonist who’s older and less redeemable. (Ten years ago, a shot of Renier riding a red moped represented the slumlord-in-training’s stolen childhood; here it stands in for retarded adolescence.) And though L’Enfant’s resignation is no less moving than La Promesse’s openheartedness, paring the earlier film’s heady, multivariate perspectives on responsibility down to one focal character (Sonia and Steve’s development is largely elided, albeit eloquently) is regrettable: it’s less a purification than a reduction.