- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

Although a baby figures prominently in the plot, there are few grown-ups anywhere

in “L’Enfant,” an intimate but oppressive study of anomie among the Belgian dispossessed.

In many ways, 20-year-old Bruno, a mop-topped petty thief played with blond obliviousness by Belgian-born actor Jeremie Renier, is the infant of the title. He’s unemployed and looks down on people who work. Instead, he steals and fences electronics with a 14-year-old schoolboy partner in crime, whom he treats basically as a peer. He’s just fathered a child, but he couldn’t attend the birth or visit his girlfriend Sonia in the hospital because he had to obtain a new black-market SIM card for his mobile phone.

We get a taste of Bruno’s devil-may-care ways even before he shows up on screen. The film opens as Sonia, played by Deborah Francois in her screen debut, returns home with her newborn, only to find that Bruno has sublet their flat. The baby’s first night out of the hospital is spent with Sonia on the women’s floor of a public shelter.

At first blush, Sonia is not particularly put off by Bruno’s failings. She loves him deliriously and childishly, tenderly referring to Bruno’s dilapidated riverside hideout as “the shack” and appearing only passingly concerned with his contempt for conventional employment. Despite the evidence of the baby, the pair are depicted as innocents. They express their fondness for each other like siblings — in giddy foot chases, pretend wrestling and by soaking each other with shaken-up cans of soda.

The dark side of Bruno’s callow nature shows itself when he sells the baby to a pair of mysterious brokers. He delivers this news to Sonia with the same uninflected earnestness he uses to announce that he is hungry or that he wants a cigarette. He has no inkling of the enormity of his act or the toll it exacts on Sonia and on their relationship. He is cowed by her violent reaction into retrieving the baby, but this sets in motion a new wave of torment for Bruno, as the baby brokers demand that he not only return the money he was paid, but an additional 5,000 euros profit lost to them.

The simplicity of the film belies its emotional impact. The wisp of a story expends remarkably little dialogue, there is no overdubbed music, and most of the photography is done with hand-held camera. Filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for “L’Enfant,” illuminate the struggles of these young lives with a stark, claustrophobic visual palette. The depressed steel town of Sariang, where the story is set, appears perpetually shrouded in fog, and the problems of Sonia and Bruno are expressed by the distances between things. At one point, we wait for upward of a minute for traffic to thin so that Sonia may cross a busy highway.

There are long segments showing little but Bruno riding the bus, not so much lost in thought as he is simply lost. In the end, the film navigates the crucial distance between Bruno’s immature self and the man he might or might not become. The success of “L’Enfant,” and of Mr. Renier’s understated, searing performance lies in keeping this transformation in abeyance until the film’s final frame.

***

WHAT: “L’Enfant”

RATING: R (some profanity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Cinematography by Alain Marcoen.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics. com/thechild/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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