There are no guarantees in life, but there might be a couple of them in cinema, and they go by the names of Jean-Pierre and Luc. The Dardennes, the most acclaimed sibling auteurs not named Joel and Ethan, have a new movie, The Unknown Girl, and it’s among the many tantalizing titles appearing in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which began yesterday. (Look for daily dispatches from the fest by Mike D’Angelo starting today.) This is the seventh consecutive picture by the Dardennes to premiere at Cannes, where the duo’s creative reliability has earned them a kind of standing invitation. Call it favoritism, but the juries seem to share the love: Since winning the Palme D’Or for Rosetta in 1999—a surprise victory I discussed in the second installment of this feature—the Dardennes have picked up prizes for almost everything they’ve made. In fact, when Two Days, One Night, one of their most affecting and accessible films, failed to win anything at the festival two years ago, it was hard not to assume that this was a deliberate attempt to spread the wealth.
So what do programmers, jury members, critics, and cinephiles alike see in these perennial festival darlings, beyond a consistency you can set your watch to? Well, for one, they’re expert dramaturgists, devising emotionally direct redemption stories, often steeped in working-class hardship and goosed with the urgency of a good thriller. The Dardennes are great with actors, casting a handful of naturalistic regulars alongside expressive (or intentionally inexpressive) unknowns. And perhaps most crucially, they’ve developed an often imitated but rarely equaled aesthetic—handheld following shots; clean editing; nothing but diegetic sound—that’s distinct but never flashy, keeping the focus firmly locked on the characters and their dilemmas. Their tagalong camera encourages empathy (how can we remain neutral when we share the physical, emotional, and moral space of these ordinary people?) even as it adheres to an “objective,” observational shooting style the brothers developed in their past lives as documentarians.
L’Enfant won the filmmakers their second Palme D’Or in 2005, which was one of those years when Cannes seemed to live up to its reputation, providing all the major movies, star power, and glamour for which the festival is famous. The main competition lineup was stacked, pitting the Dardennes against Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Lars Von Trier, Michael Haneke, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Johnnie To, David Cronenberg (who had served as president of the jury the year Rosetta won), and several other big names. Winning the undercard competition Un Certain Regard, bureaucratic nightmare The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu helped put the Romanian New Wave on film lovers’ maps. And a bunch of notable American movies, including Woody Allen’s Match Point and Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, screened out of competition. The fest even found room for a little lightsaber action, as extras in stormtrooper uniforms lined the red carpet for the premiere of Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge Of The Sith.
There were plenty of high profiles on the jury, too: Controversial Serbian director Emir Kusturica—who shares with the Dardennes the rare distinction of having won the Palme twice—led a deciding body that included fellow filmmakers Agnès Varda and John Woo, actors Javier Bardem and Salma Hayek, and novelist Toni Morrison. “We are not going to have pathetic decisions,” Kusturica promised, and in some respects, L’Enfant was the safe pick, surprising only because the Dardennes had won just a few years earlier. Unlike Haneke’s Caché or Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence—both considered by some to be the front-runners—its virtues were all right there on the surface, and it’s hard to imagine anyone, even those (somehow) unmoved by the Dardennes’ approach, ever describing the film as “pathetic.” But that’s really just a vaguely backhanded way of saying that L’Enfant feels (and must have felt at the time) built to last, its unaffected performances and unobtrusive style creating the timeless appeal of some neorealist classic. It might not be the Dardennes’ greatest film—for my money, that honor belongs to The Son (2002), which infuses their most powerful moral crucible with suspense worthy of Hitchcock—but it could be their most illustrative, the one the uninitiated could watch to see what all the fuss is about.
The title, which translates to The Child, has two obvious meanings. It certainly refers to Jimmy, the infant son of young, destitute Sonia (Déborah François), who’s seen carting the baby up a flight of stairs in the first scene, one of those mid-step openings the directors specialize in. But it’s also a fine description of the boy’s 20-year-old father, Bruno, played by Dardennes mainstay Jérémie Renier. Bruno is a homeless thief, scraping by on whatever he’s able to steal and pawn. Such hardscrabble circumstances would seem to demand our sympathies, but the Dardennes aren’t interested in treating their hero like a stand-in for the impoverished masses, the way Rosetta seemed to represent the tireless plight of the underemployed. And though he looks a bit like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, stylish hat and all, Bruno’s outlaw cool is mostly in his head. The suggestion is that he’s made this life on the fringe for himself out of sheer irresponsibility. “Only fuckers work,” he shrugs, and the Dardennes take care to show how Bruno blows his modest earnings—renting a convertible, for example, hours before he checks himself, Sonia, and Jimmy into a local homeless shelter.
All of which is to say, L’Enfant is as close to Knocked Up as Bicycle Thieves in thematic thrust; it’s a story about a man-child forced to become a man, with premature fatherhood as an intervening force. Of course, Judd Apatow wouldn’t dare build one of his growing-up comedies around the big, shocking turning point the Dardennes concoct here: In an act of pure compulsiveness, Bruno sells Jimmy to a black-market adoption ring. The scene where he tells Sonia what he’s done, with a casualness that indicates just how little he grasps the seriousness of the situation, is a jaw-dropping highlight.
Is Bruno a selfish, pathetic creep or a full-fledged sociopath? Hocking your infant son for some quick cash would seem to suggest the latter, and if there’s anything about L’Enfant that rings false, it’s that the Dardennes frame this heinous crime as a case of terrible judgment more than, well, a fundamental malfunction in mental hardware. But Bruno’s actions have to be extreme for the film’s dramatic arc to properly function. The Dardennes are asking: Is this guy, so devoid of a moral center that he’d treat his own son like an easy payday, beyond help? Will anything get through to him?
L’Enfant compounds Bruno’s troubles, tightening the screws on him as the consequences multiply and he attempts to right his wrong. He can get the kid back, but it’s going to cost him twice what he pocketed. Then there’s the tricky business of the police, who take accusations of human trafficking very seriously. Throughout this ordeal, Bruno evades blame as much as he can, pathologically refusing to take responsibility for his actions, and the obstacles he’s forced to overcome begin to feel like the universe’s way of applying pressure, of trying to squeeze an atonement out of him. The Dardennes are often celebrated as spiritual filmmakers, their movies taking place in a kind of nondenominational moral universe where characters achieve grace through perseverance, and flickers of hope illuminate lives swallowed by darkness. In L’Enfant, the faint religious component is apparent not just in the architecture of the plot (a sinner nudged toward absolution) but also in the plain, simple rigor of the Dardennes style: Their constantly roving camera is like the unblinking eye of a compassionate god, always watching but never making its presence known, absorbing both the flaws and the human radiance—the potential goodness—of this far-gone fuck-up.
If there’s yet another meaning to the title, it concerns the film’s other major character, Steve (Jérémie Segard), a 14-year-old boy who sometimes serves as Bruno’s partner in crime, filching what the man can’t for a small cut of the profits. For Bruno, parenthood is still abstract; when he looks at Jimmy, he doesn’t see himself in that role yet. He’s more of a father figure to Steve, albeit a very bad one, and L’Enfant smartly builds its final push toward salvation around the trouble Bruno gets the boy into, specifically during an exciting, suspenseful motorbike chase that suggests the Dardennes could make one hell of a conventional thriller, if they ever wanted to slum in style.
Bruno’s parallel relationships with Steve and Sonia prove to be catalysts for the film’s justly beloved ending, in which the Dardennes make explicit their clear debt to the French master filmmaker Robert Bresson by reconfiguring the final moments of his most iconic effort, Pickpocket. The cathartic power of this finale is evident, though there are multiple ways to read that overdue flush of tears. Is it love? Regret? Gratitude? Moral awakening? Maybe it’s just relief—the only possible reaction to freeing oneself from the weight of guilt, stress, and stubborn resistance to change. The Dardennes end on a note of complicated but universally resonant emotion, the kind that cuts a swath of identification across cultural lines. No wonder they won a prize from a bunch of artists of different nationalities. L’Enfant speaks the human language.
Not that the writer-directors deserve all the credit. A lot of this film’s gravity rests on Renier’s shoulders; if Bruno buckles under the weight of the world (and his own mistakes), the leading man playing him carries that burden without stumbling. Besides affording Bruno a restless juvenile energy—look at the way he never stands still, absently jump-kicking a wall while waiting to do the dirty deed early in the film—he also adopts the air of untouchable nonchalance so many young men wrap themselves in like a security blanket. Nothing seems to faze Bruno, which makes his inevitable breakdown all the more poignant: Only when blubbering like, yes, a child does he seem to begin his belated passage into adulthood. The Dardennes, in fact, have been subjecting Renier to dramatic growing pains for two decades now. Other than their ever-present collaborator Olivier Gourmet, no one has appeared in more of the filmmakers’ work, and by setting aside specific details and names, it’s possible (and fun) to imagine that Renier is often playing the same character at different stages of his life, Boyhood style. Is it so hard to imagine the troubled youth of La Promesse (1996) growing into Bruno, who then grows into the deadbeat dad of The Kid With A Bike (2011)?
Of course, such leaps in logic aren’t necessary to draw connections among the powerhouse dramas of this incomparable directing duo. High quality, coupled with a clear-eyed empathy, is the unifying force of their filmography. They’re sort of like The White Stripes of contemporary art-house moviemaking: sibling auteurs (actual siblings, unlike Jack and Meg) with a sturdy, analog style that’s indebted to the techniques of some major ’60s forebearers but still entirely, unmistakably their own. And like the now-defunct Stripes, the Dardennes never whiff. Their byline is a seal of quality. Whether The Unknown Girl will score the pair more Cannes prizes remains to be seen. Maybe the two have gotten so dependable in their excellence that all of us—jury members included—take them for granted. At this point, they’d have to actually make something mediocre to shock anyone. Don’t count on that.
Did it deserve to win? You want shocking? Caché is shocking, in the way only a Michael Haneke button-pusher can be. The Austrian provocateur won Best Director from the Cannes jury, but his razor-sharp combination of suburban horror movie, family drama, and political allegory was the front-runner for a reason. (Don’t cry for Haneke, who won his own Palme four years later, and a second three years after that.) It’s otherwise hard to argue with L’Enfant as a winner, though there were several other worthy candidates in that banner year for the festival: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s eclectic, era-leaping omnibus Three Times; Gus Van Sant’s anti-biopic Last Days, which ended his so-called “death trilogy” with a mood piece about Kurt Cobain; and a trifecta of stylized crime sagas, David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence, Johnnie To’s Election, and Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City.
Next up: Black Orpheus