Please do not be fooled by the poster for this Palme d’Or darling: It is not a feel-good love story between the rumpled young couple you see in a clinch. Oh, no. Revolving around Bruno (Renier) and Sonia (François), L'Enfant
is a maelstrom of grit, crime, poverty, and bureaucratic gridlock, seen through a documentary-style lens. It’s a marvelous, evocative, and well-acted film, but the Belgian Dardenne brothers tell about the dangers of life in Seraing, Belgium, an industrial bust town where love doesn’t necessarily conquer all. Sonia has just had a baby, but the titular child is actually Bruno, a small-time hoodlum who sells electronics heisted by his gang of chain-smoking grade-schoolers. “Only fuckers work,” Bruno tells Sonia – after she’s come home from the maternity ward to find that Bruno has sublet her apartment in her absence. The problem is not that Bruno and Sonia are teenage parents. The problem is that Bruno is an opportunist and an abuser of goodwill, an emotional child who wheedles and schemes and squirms, and Sonia is too much in his sway. Everything around Bruno can be sold for a price, including Jimmy, their 9-day-old son. To say more would give away the plot, but the story picks up the pace in its second and third acts, transforming itself from a realist urban social drama into an ominous moral thriller about Bruno’s apparently fruitless attempts to undo his misdeeds. The Dardennes exploit their environment masterfully – the dank and shadowy interiors of semi-abandoned flats and garages where faceless hands collect payouts through rusty vents, a school yard more like a prison, and Bruno’s hideout by the Meuse, whose riverfront is seen here as a boneyard of mechanical waste, scrap metal, and hidden hollows for squatters. It’s a grim milieu, and the Dardennes photograph it unflinchingly. Renier has the hard face and pitted skin of a thug but the rounded shoulders and mop of blond hair of a younger boy; it’s a credit to his performance that despite Bruno’s callow, shiftless ways, hope for his redemption is not misplaced. The film isn’t perfect – its buildup is too long, with drawling scenes of the lovers tussling like puppies, while its final turn is too rushed – but it is an observant and effective study in character and setting, suitably grave and distinctively realized.