Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner

“L’Enfant” (The Child) bares a resemblance to “The Son,” the Dardenne brothers’ prior film. The latter movie is memorable for the way the camera aimlessly followed a man who, more or less, stalked a boy. In my film review I wrote:

I think it has a great story, but I’m not sure illustrating it in a movie format like this works. It would have worked better on paper as a short story, or even as a short film. It doesn’t have enough developments or tension to justify its 110 minute length. It has a lot of footage where we watch over [the protagonist’s] shoulders. His ear gets as much screen time as his face.

Indeed, “L’Enfant” seems to exhibit the same problems once again. The film starts vaguely, as the camera trails a young mother (Déborah François) and her infant son. It takes several minutes for the camera to locate Bruno (Jérémie Renier), the charismatic protagonist and the thieving father of the titular character. It even takes even longer for the story to make an interesting turn. This happens when Bruno leaves the baby in the corner and that’s nearing the halfway point of the movie. Here we go, I thought. Are the Dardennes are up to the same thing again? Are they stretching a (great) story longer than it’s supposed to be? Instead of story developments, are we treated to watching characters walking up and down streets?

Thankfully, the related filmmakers nurtured “L’Enfant” better than I expected. They didn’t corner their baby of a film to their own signature format. Rather, they made own brand of filmmaking adapt to the story. The camera is less of a stalker now, and more of an active observer. It helps too that Bruno is intriguing to shadow. He draws you in because he’s bound to attract trouble. But even if he’s not in trouble, there’s something in Bruno’s immaturity and carefree demeanor that made me keep watching.

However, just because I can watch it, it doesn’t mean it’s worth it. Why should I pay to watch a movie if I can watch snow fall for free? You get what I’m saying? Watching is a passive action. When I “watch” a movie, my thoughts, feelings, and senses better be actively involved. As for “L’Enfant,” I watched most of it passively, as if I’m in a trance. It is only on the third act when it felt like I was awakened. I found the final story developments to be so wonderfully brisk that it makes up for the film’s tendency to linger. And the ending itself took me by surprise. Not because it’s a twist. I was surprised at how deeply I cared about the characters all along. This is a mesmerizing movie, with some small moments of power. “L’Enfant” matures quite nicely all in its own.

Grade: B+

Jérémie Renier, Déborah François, Jérémie Segard, Fabrizio Rongione, and Olivier Gourmet
Screenplay by
Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Luc Dardenne
Directed by
Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Luc Dardenne
Rated R for brief language