After seeing a number of mediocre to ludicrously poor competition films at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, I should have lowered expectations for the Palm d'or winner. But L'Enfant (The Child) had outbuzzed the interesting Caché (Hidden) and came from the same filmmakers that created Le Fils (The Son), so I was very much looking forward to its local opening. That was a mistake. I should have considered it a minor contribution from the talented Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc), who use their documentary background to effectively capture detached naturalism in their fictional narratives. Their hand-held "cinema direct" methodology may fascinate people who've not seen their previous work, but it's a case of "been there--done that" in film making technique with an unlikeable and unrealistic protagonist.
Set in dreary east Belgium industrial town of Seraing, disowned twenty-year old Bruno (Jérémie Renier) lives with his eighteen-year-old girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) off government checks, panhandling, and petty theft from Bruno's gang of 14-year old thieves. Sonia has just given birth to their firstborn son (Jimmy), but discovers that Bruno has sublet their flat to strangers when she returns from the hospital. Bruno hasn't even seen his son yet, and he's certainly not ready to be a father.
In fact, there's hints that both are too immature to be responsible parents as they flirt and play sexual games while driving the highway. Fiscal responsibility isn't part of Bruno's "live for the moment" lifestyle either; he impulsively drops unnecessary Euros to buy Sonia a matching jacket. The film's title could refer to the young parents. At least Bruno buys a baby stroller.
Just when you think Bruno may grow into fatherhood, he suddenly sells his infant son to the black market for 5,000 Euros--"We can make another" (he thinks). There's no guarantee, but he faintly hopes Jimmy will be sold to a family with money who can give him a better life. What Bruno hadn't counted on was Sonia's reaction; she obviously is far more attached to her son than he is. So Bruno sets out to retrieve the baby and seek redemption, and that's where complications arise.
The cast hits its marks dutifully; unfortunately we are forced into Bruno's point of view for the most part instead of the more interesting Sonia. Given more nuance and development, this could work; however, the objective distancing camera never really allows us inside Bruno's head . . . and that makes the film difficult to embrace. His character remains superficial throughout, and the real redemption occurs through his actions in a petty thievery sequence with one of his young gang members.
Bruno does plenty of crying, but this and his inexplicable selling of the baby comes across as an abrupt shortcut in an amateurish script more bent on propelling the plot forward than developing its characters. The gritty location camera-work provides appropriate background that helps explain the plight of the underclass. Like their previous work, the camera spends a great deal of time close-up. That does reveal certain subtleties—like Sonia's disillusionment and strong maternal feelings.
Unfortunately the screenplay neglects to flesh out characters that are worth our time. Bruno remains flat and largely devoid of real humanity as he marches through the script, using his cell phone and knocking forlornly on Sonia's apartment door. As Bruno and Sonia sob uncontrollably at the end, many will exit L'Enfant humming Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" You expect so much more from a Palm d'or winner.