With their breakout hit La Promesse, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne cultivated a singularly exquisite ethical and emphatic view of the world adopted and extended by each and every one of their successive masterpieces: Rossetta, The Son, and now L’Enfant. The verité aesthetic of these films is instantly recognizable and rooted in the brothers’ shared background in documentary filmmaking; the wobbly camera, back-of-the-head shots, oblique framing, and lack of mood music is its own artifice, but the cumulative emotional and spiritual affect of these films never feels premeditated. So innate is this style that the films appear to materialize out of thin air, and with each new project, the filmmakers appear to be daring us to find a single false note in their startling simulations of real life.
In typical Dardenne fashion, L’Enfant wastes scant time chokeholding its audience. In a grim eastern Belgian steel town, Bruno (Jérémie Renier) panhandles and cons locals with the help of 14-year-old Steve (Jérémie Segard). Bruno’s girlfriend, Sonia (Déborah François), waits to collect an unemployment check, oblivious that Bruno is about to sell their newborn child, who’s tossed around like an article of trade throughout the film’s running time. This moment is horrifying, not least of which because Bruno betrays the moral and emotional responsibility implicit in that mythic image the Dardennes allow us to glimpse early in the film of father, mother, and son huddled in ostensible rapture near the cold, dirty embankment they sometimes call home.
L’Enfant’s swirling sense of moral chaos, sustained horror, and courage has not been seen since The Son, which was also open to the possibility of good coming out of a world that can be relentless in its callousness. Like the Dardennes’ camera, Bruno seems propelled by an innate mechanism beyond his control; he is keen only on self-preservation, oblivious to his role as a father. The Dardennes help us to understand Bruno’s helplessness, but they never abuse or toy with our sympathies. They may see Bruno’s actions as the residual damage of a heartless social existence (a dog-eat-dog global market), but this bitter truth isn’t revealed to the audience with a guttersnipe’s sense of class, but with uncanny ease, and with the compassionate belief that the world, in spite of its merciless cruelty, is still possible of affecting good.
The Dardenne Brothers are religious men, but their detached style is so munificent their films defy easy categorization; these works of art can just as easily be read as Christian allegories or visions of socialist-humanist daring. Indeed, every remarkable composition and movement in L’Enfant exudes compassion and remorse, evoking a profound sense of transcendental, existential, spiritual, or emotional unease (take your pick, or take them all, because the brothers’ vision is nothing if not absolute), and its incredible, gut-punching finale—which follows what may be the most exciting and revelatory chase sequence the movies have seen in many moons—can be looked at as a male pieta or, more simply (but just as powerfully), an eruptive demonstration of a child finally becoming an adult. Either way, the film is nothing short of a miracle.