Bruno (JÃ©rÃ©mie Renier) is bad news; we understand this before we ever get a glimpse of him. His girlfriend Sonia (DÃ©borah FranÃ§ois) returns to her apartment with their newborn son Jimmy, only to find that Bruno has sublet it out from under her. She finally finds him pulling double-duty in his personal career of skimming off the world: panhandling from cars at a traffic signal while simultaneously keeping an eye out for the mark his teenage accomplices are about to rob. The idea of being a responsible citizen seems incomprehensible to him; his response to the notion of having a job is that “only f'kers work.” The title of L’Enfant (The Child)'the 2005 Palme D’Or winner at Cannes'may refer to the bundle of joy in Sonia’s arms, but it could just as easily refer to the overgrown adolescent that sired him.
Such multiple layers of meaning are common in the titles of Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ fiction features, though initially that may seem counterintuitive. For one thing, the former documentarians create human dramas so straightforward in their presentation that the gut instinct is to take them at face value. For another, those titles'The Promise, The Son, and now The Child'are almost too basic, begging for the most obvious interpretation. Yet the Dardennes quietly have built a body of work'urgent, magnificently observed tales of morality and redemption'as complex as it is riveting. Like all the Dardennes’ films, The Child may be naturalistic, but it’s far from simplistic.
Even the event that ultimately propels the plot isn’t nearly as straightforward as simple description might suggest. Because Bruno exists in a universe where the value of anything is only measurable by how much he can hock it for, he realizes that the primary asset at his disposal is a healthy, newborn, white baby boy. So while Sonia waits in the welfare line, Bruno takes Jimmy for a little walk, only to return with an empty stroller and 5,000 euros. Not surprisingly, Sonia freaks out. And Bruno'less out of paternal concern than out of a fear that he’ll be arrested'immediately sets out to get Jimmy back.
A conventional film might have turned that quest into the bulk of the story, but the Dardennes take Bruno in another direction. Indeed, he recovers Jimmy fairly quickly, only to discover that the black marketeers to whom he was sold have a slightly more stringent return policy than Target: They expect Bruno to pay back not just the 5,000 they gave him, but an additional 5,000 they would have received from the prospective parents. Sonia, meanwhile, has no interest in giving Bruno a place to sleep. He’s homeless, broke, alone and in debt to thugs.
What’s remarkable about The Child is that watching Bruno brought low'well, lower'seems neither tragic nor a case of just deserts. It’s just faintly sad. And that’s because the Dardennes do such a remarkable job of showing Bruno as utterly lacking a sense of morality that extends beyond immediate gratification and avoiding punishment. Their lingering takes capture his playful tussles with Sonia, suggesting an ideal match of frivolous temperaments before his unforgivable act. They watch as he experiments with stepping in mud, then seeing how high he can plant his dirty foot on a wall; they watch as he sits by the side of a river, swishing a piece of metal back and forth like a bored Tom Sawyer. Cruelty isn’t part of his emotional vocabulary; he’s just a big floppy-haired kid.
Watching Bruno’s slow evolution toward some concept of personal responsibility isn’t going to be every movie-goer’s idea of a thrilling visit to the theater, but The Child actually demonstrates a better sense of creating tension than a hundred Da Vinci Codes. That’s because the Dardennes understand that the essence of drama is whether or not we care about the fate of the characters. They’re able to wring more urgency out of a man standing alone in an empty room than many movies get out of dashes through flying bullets, and they never have to resort to cheap trickery or swelling musical cues.
They do, however, take advantage of one little piece of background information: It was Renier, playing Bruno here, who starred in the Dardennes’ The Promise 10 years ago as Igor, a boy freeing himself from the amoral worldview of his father. The Child is like watching an alternate reality in which Igor’s revelation came much later'and it’s just another layer of meaning the Dardennes can employ for their simple, powerfully human stories.