Selling babies, selling souls

By Brooks Robards - May 18, 2006

In a special, one-day event this Sunday, Martha's Vineyard Theatres will show the award-winning Belgian movie, "l'Enfant," by Jean Pierre and Luc Dardennes at the Island Theatre in Oak Bluffs, at 4 and 7 pm. This powerful film about the misadventures of a young couple and their new baby won the Golden Palm at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

"L'Enfant" unwinds more like a thriller rather than the social drama that it in fact is. Just out of the hospital after delivering her baby Jimmy, Sonia (Déborah Francois) discovers that her boyfriend Bruno (Jérémie Renier) has sublet their apartment to another couple. She knows where to look for him, though.

Bruno is on the street, busy hustling change from passing cars while he serves as a lookout for an ongoing burglary. A blonde-haired charmer, he's glad to be reunited with his pretty blonde girlfriend, but his infant son Jimmy holds about as much interest for him as a sack of flour.

Flush with youthful beauty and high spirits, this vagabond couple gambols and roughhouses like two puppies. It barely fazes Sonia to spend the night with Jimmy at a homeless shelter, while the Fagin-like Bruno gets busy scaring up more ill-gotten cash with his two 14-year-old assistant thieves.

Nothing as mundane as an ordinary job will do for Bruno, and he blows most of his money on rental of a flashy convertible. While Sonia is waiting in line for what appears to be some sort of welfare assistance, Bruno takes Jimmy for a stroll and decides on the spur of the moment to trade him in for quick cash.

The Dardennes filmmaking brothers began their careers making documentaries, and this foundation helps explain their gritty, reality-based approach to story telling. Their 2002 film, "Le Fils," won awards at Cannes, and "La Promesse" was named Best Foreign Language Film by the National Society of Film Critics.

No musical soundtrack intrudes into the cinematic world they create out of Seraing, the East Belgian steel town near Liege where Sonia and Bruno live and where the filmmakers grew up. The characters in "L'Enfant" dodge traffic, hang out near bridge abutments, and devise ways to work the system in this modern urban world.

The surprise comes in how appealing the Dardennes make the two lowlifes. They keep the camera close to them, letting it remain essentially noncommittal, while Bruno and Sonia pursue their carefree lifestyle, as if the appearance of an infant in their lives won't require changes or assumptions of responsibility.

Then as quickly as summer clouds can bring a shower, everything changes. When Bruno returns without Jimmy, Sonia becomes distraught, and the young father realizes he must retrieve their baby. That turns out to be more of a challenge than Bruno has encountered so far in his life.

For Sonia, the shift towards adulthood and its obligations happens quickly and believably with the loss of her baby. For Bruno, the process is more gradual. The audience watches as this carefree, amoral youngster gets himself into more and more hot water. One dilemma after another forces him to make decisions that begin to determine who he will become as an adult.

The marvel is that the filmmakers take few, if any, false steps as they follow the course of events in this nascent family's lives with their camera. "L'Enfant" is steeped in a naturalism that puts the lie to formulaic conventions found in Hollywood-style filmmaking and storytelling. Nor is the film simply an exercise in technical brilliance or easy moralizing.

The viewer will see a profoundly humanist perspective underlying "L'Enfant." The lives of Bruno, Sonia and Jimmy matter despite the harsh realities of a universe all too ready to treat them as disposable. Their story and the ending it is given by the Dardennes, who wrote the script as well as directed, reverberates in ways that will haunt the viewer.

The screening of "L'Enfant" is one of several film events made possible by a new digital projection system installed at the Island Theatre by Martha's Vineyard Theatres. The next one scheduled is "The Puffy Chair," part of the Undiscovered Gems series and will be shown Wednesday, May 24 at the Island Theatre.

"l'Enfant," at the Island Theatre, Circuit Ave., Oak Bluffs; Sunday, May 21, at 4 and 7 pm.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.