Saturday, September 20, 2014

August Blind Spot: L'enfant

Dardennes Brothers are one of the directors who have garnered quite a reputation for themselves over the years. I became more and more aware of them as I got more into foreign cinema and their films became part of my ever growing watch list. I was under the impression that I have never seen any of their films and hence wanted to include one on this year's Blind spot list to give myself a start. I chose L'enfant(2005) because, with one of their two Palme d'Or, it seems to be their most revered film. I have been meaning to check out more Palme d'Or winners as well. Two birds in one stone, I thought. As it turns out, they directed The Kid with a Bike(2011) which I saw last year. So this wasn't really my first Dardennes film but regardless it was a worthy choice.

Like most other directors, most revered directors anyway, Dardenne brothers have their own style and their own formula and, from what I know, most of their films follow that track. Based on this, my first thought was what makes them so special if they are essentially making the same film again and again? What I can say right now is it’s their ability to tell what looks like same story from outside from different perspective and their ability to make us viewers relate with characters. And I felt it even more in reference to the character of Bruno in this film because saying that he is a despicable character is putting it very mildly. He is just about worst father that ever existed on the surface of this earth.

First of all, Bruno is an extremely irresponsible and deplorable guy from the start. He doesn’t even have a house and he almost scoffs at a notion of having a regular job. He lives either in a shelter or in his shack by the river. Sonia does have a small apartment rented but Bruno even sublets that to someone else when she is in a hospital for her delivery. As for job, Bruno has a 14 year old assistant who helps him do petty crimes like stealing. If you already hate him, I can't really blame you but there is much more to come yet. I haven't even started. Elephant in the room here is Bruno selling their 9 day old son in black market. I don't think this would count as a spoiler because if you one thing about this movie it would be that but even that isn't all.

L’enfant is almost like a checklist for all their trademark elements. Their films usually feature characters struggling to make their ends meet. Here, with no real prospects, Sonia and Bruno pretty much live on her welfare money and his stealing money. They do not use any score. There was none here but to tell you the truth, they didn’t really need it. They tell their stories so well that I really didn’t notice any lack of score until it was brought to my attention half way through. Handheld cameras are prevalent. Leading characters are seen in every scene. You do get either Sonia or Bruno is ‘every’ scene. And I think Bruno, played by Jeremie Renier – one of Dardennes’ regulars, is in every scene except first couple of them where Sonia is looking for him. And, in words of IMDb, they usually end with one character giving a helping hand to another - that's Sonia finally going to meet Bruno in jail. All check.

Bruno doesn't have many redeeming qualities. After he has sold their son, he shamelessly sells his pram as well and there is not even a hint of distress seen in his actions. [SPOILER ALERT] Sonia faints after hearing this news and involves police in this. After seeing that, he somehow manages to get that child back but not because he felt bad for it. It's because Sonia might make authorities pick him up.[SPOILER END] I really wouldn’t mind if someone skinned him and left him hanging to dry. About the only responsible thing he does throughout this film in taking blame for stealing a purse in the end. Otherwise he is an extremely horrible and irresponsible person throughout. 

You usually feel for someone you are rooting for in their bad times. Making you feel for someone you almost hate and want to see punished as hard as humanely possible needs something special and, by the end, L’enfant had done that; Dardenne brothers did that with just one image. As much as I hated Bruno, and as I said earlier I really despised him, note on which they chose to end this film still gave me hope that there might still be some future for Bruno and Sonia together. There still might be some hope for Bruno to account for something. I think it really needed it and they could not have said it better in thousand words.

Since it revolves around Bruno and Sonia and has at least one of them on screen all the time, naturally Renier and Deborah Francois hold key for its success. Personally, I liked Francois more because her character goes through bigger emotional arc with initial elation and hope of new life with arrival of their child to bitter disappointment to eventual makeup after Bruno comes around. However, there would be no denying that Renier is more important to success of this film. It is designed in such a way that you are sympathetic towards Sonia and despise Bruno and I would think it would be difficult to make viewers hate you than to make them sympathize with you.

But real hero of L'enfant is neither Bruno nor Sonia. It's the script written by Dardenne brothers themselves. It is so well written, so well paced that it almost always succeeds in getting exact response it was aiming for from us viewers. I obviously do not have in depth knowledge of their style. So I am going to go to someone I know bit more and someone who I think has one think in common with them - Christopher Nolan. I could be completely wrong about it but I think, like Nolan, their films almost always have some great performances. But what it boils down to is their direction and writing that makes them so great. In hands of lesser directors, these films and even performances couldn't be as good as they are. That makes me real excited to tackle rest of their films!

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