Anonymous city, handheld camera, actors who scarcely seem to be acting: we may think we know where we are, more or less. This is surely the New Wave by way of Neo-Realism, early Truffaut chasing late Rossellini. Didn’t we get over this? How could a film in this vein, namely L’Enfant, written and directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, win the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year? To say nothing of the same prize won by their film Rosetta, a venture in just the same vein, in 1999. ‘A gritty urban tale of a young couple living on the breadline in France’, the BBC says of L’Enfant. Belgium, as it happens, and more like the criminal fringe than the breadline. But gritty and urban are going to be part of almost anyone’s first impressions. Grim, too. Are we so nostalgic for the hard realities we imagine the movies have lost?
These first impressions are not all wrong, and the Dardenne brothers, Belgian filmmakers who first received international notice with their devastating La Promesse (1996), make no secret of their cinematic debts. They usually throw Bresson into the mix, and critics seem to feel some mention of the brothers’ background in documentary film is obligatory. But they also have a background in theatre, which may help to explain why the first impressions don’t tell the whole story, and why one’s memories of the films make all quick and loose descriptions seem slightly off. The films turn out not to be grim, for example. Their touch is too light for that, and the ironies too carefully managed. The characters don’t brood over their misery – they are too busy inventing the wrong solutions. The programme notes for a recent Austrian season of the Dardennes’ films say they are ‘not just precise portrayals of society, they are also fables about the struggle for grace.’ This is a bit too theological but it’s a move in the right direction.
L’Enfant opens on a shot of a young woman (Déborah François) with a baby coming up some stairs. She takes out a key and opens the door of what turns out to be her flat. Two surprised and annoyed people, a man and a woman, are seen through the door. They explain they have rented the place for the weekend from Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and slam the door in the young woman’s face. She bangs on the door. She knows what’s happened because she knows Bruno, but she needs the charger for her mobile phone. The couple fling the charger out, and the young woman takes off.
The mobile phone is important as an image and an instrument. It allows the people in this film to make their dodgy deals and connections, and it also links them to their harebrained wishes, allows them to realise their first ideas without time for second thoughts. This is just what happens to Bruno, master, as he imagines, of adventure and survival in the grubby modern city. The place we are in is the Belgian steel town of Seraing, near Liège, recurring scene of the Dardenne brothers’ movies. When people are not on the phone, it seems, they are on a bus, or whizzing around town on a moped. The high whine of the moped becomes something like the theme music of all these movies. Heavy traffic, lorries and cars pounding across the screen, is another returning image. You begin to feel that just getting across the street is a deep skill, probably available only to people in their teens and early twenties.
When the young woman, Sonia, mother of Bruno’s child, finally finds him and asks him what he has done with the money he got for her apartment, he shows her the new leather jacket he has bought. Can’t steal things like this, he says proudly. What will they do for money? No problem, you can always get money. He’s not very interested in the baby, but he’s pleased to see Sonia, and they romp around like children. She sleeps in a shelter for the homeless and he goes off to sell some stolen stuff. His fence asks about the baby, and whether they are going to keep it. If it turns out they can’t manage, the fence says, there are people who pay good money for babies. Bruno pays no attention.
A little later he takes the baby for a walk in the fancy new pram he has bought with his recently acquired money. He does a little begging just for fun, and then he has an idea. We know he has an idea, because he makes a phone call. In all of these movies, people act as soon as they think, and this is why the movies become so fast and ironic. The characters in L’Enfant, as in La Promesse and Rosetta, are always busy, never at a loss. They have always already decided what to do, and are on their way to do it. That’s what we see, that’s what the films consist of: people on their way somewhere, not reflecting, not agonising, just getting on with it, whatever it is. There is just enough dialogue to clarify what’s happening, but the dialogue is an explanation, not part of a decision or a thought process. When the boy in La Promesse makes his promise to look after an African immigrant and her child, we scarcely hear his words and the words scarcely matter. Later, when he helps the woman to escape from his father, who’s running an illegal immigration scam, he says he can go against his father for her sake, but he can’t inform on him: ‘Je ne suis pas d’accord avec mon père, mais je ne suis pas un mouchard.’ He’s not looking for grace but he has found, and is acting on, a fragile but real sense of honour.
Bruno takes a while to get there. His idea, and the subject of his phone call, is obviously to sell the baby; and he does. The great scene in the movie occurs when he tells Sonia about it. We expect some wily, picaresque explanation, another example of Bruno’s talent for improvisation, but he just tells Sonia the truth. Partly, we imagine, because he likes her and doesn’t want to lie to her, and partly because he doesn’t think there’s a problem. We can have another one, he says: ‘On en fera un autre.’ Sonia passes out and he takes her to the hospital. The plot of the film becomes quite tricky at this point, and totally undoes any idea of simple documentary sequence or observation. Sonia tells the hospital staff what Bruno has done; he manages to get the baby back, but is still in trouble with the police. He talks his way out of that, but now owes the baby-dealing crooks for their ‘additional expenses’. Sonia won’t talk to him, and throws him out of the flat. He gets one of his juvenile friends to snatch a purse for him, and both of them are pursued by respectable Belgians eager to make a citizen’s arrest. Bruno escapes, but they catch his friend.
Here follows the second long walking scene in the movie – the earlier one was Bruno pushing the pram, first with and then without the baby, up and down the streets of Seraing, past the shops, across a bridge, through the traffic. Now Bruno pushes his friend’s moped through a similar scene. The thing is heavy, and I seem to have missed the reason why he is not riding it. As ever, he has made up his mind and knows what he is doing. But we shan’t know what it is until he does it. In fact, Bruno, like the boy in La Promesse, has found a sense of honour he didn’t know he had, and is on his way to the police station, because he can’t let his juvenile friend take the rap alone. The movie ends with Bruno in prison, and Sonia visiting him. He asks how the baby is and Sonia says he’s fine. They don’t have much to say to each other, and Bruno starts to cry. Sonia cries too, and the film is over.
It seems to me essential that we don’t know why Bruno is crying, that we can’t moralise this ending into some comfortable stuff about remorse and learning a lesson and the value of human life. Perhaps he’s crying because he’s sorry for himself. Perhaps he’s just bewildered by the evaporation of his old ingenuity, by all the risk and fun running out when he thought they would go on for ever. Sonia may be crying because Bruno is, but she has plenty of other reasons too; and the only good explanation for any of these tears is the whole film we have just seen.
This ending is not a mystery, because it doesn’t have a solution, only multiple, intimated causes. The plot of Michael Haneke’s Caché, on the other hand, is a mystery, because it has several solutions, all dull. The dullest is the one the director himself seems to prefer: there is no solution, and only unsophisticated viewers will worry about such things, instead of concentrating on the big historical themes. I got the theme of the Algerian War and the way the past can revisit the present, but I confess I also continued to worry about the mystery and its solution. Why is this well-to-do French couple (he’s a TV presenter, she’s a publisher, they live in a lovely boutique apartment) so panicky? Who has been sending them strange drawings, and videotapes of pieces of their lives? Actually, we don’t really know they’re panicky, because they manage only to look vaguely cross throughout the movie. Clearly the actors, Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, have been carefully coached, or have coached themselves, in the idea that anomie among the chattering classes looks like indigestion. Still, we gather it’s all to do with what Auteuil did when he was six: he betrayed an Algerian boy, who was then taken away by the authorities. There is one terrific scene in the movie, and it’s worth seeing for that alone. A middle-aged Algerian, the betrayed boy grown older, commits suicide before our eyes with a sudden, startling slash of a razor, and for a moment something of the complexity we need hovers before us. This man is dying not because of something that has happened to him but because of everything that has happened to him. But then the film gets back to its old pace, its gimmicks and delay: too slow and too easy.