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Friday, Dec. 2, 2005
The kid is not all right
By KAORI SHOJI
Even when we feel we're getting old, society grabs our legs and drags us back to teenage-dom. Everywhere we turn we get video games, anime, fashion, pop music, antiaging obsessions . . . and on and on. It's drummed into us that, hey, it is OK to be 30 or 40 and to have the tastes and inclinations of a 15-year-old.
Compared to the days of old, the traditional rites of passage for child to adult are increasingly rare -- any puzzles to be solved, dragons to be slain or journeys to be undertaken are usually done on the Internet . . . very quickly and very neatly. But as "L'Enfant (The Child)," winner of the 2005 Palme d'Or in Cannes, shows with brilliant insight, for some children, adulthood isn't an option. Like poverty, unemployment or homelessness, it's here and here it is.
Directed by the Belgian filmmaker brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, "L'Enfant" charts the emotional growth of 20-year-old Bruno (Jeremie Renier) as he changes from an irresponsible, callous petty thief into a man willing to care for others besides himself, i.e., a defining step toward adulthood.
For Bruno, the task is difficult from the get-go: When his 18-year-old girlfriend Sonia (a stunning performance by first-time actress Deborah Francois) comes back from the clinic with their newborn son Jimmie, Bruno is nowhere to be seen and has sublet Sonia's apartment to strangers for that week. Sonia wanders the streets until she finds him and presents him with the baby. He takes a brief glance, looks bored and goes off to keep an appointment: "I'll see you later, OK?"
Bruno isn't mean or evil. He likes Sonia and has no ill-feelings for Jimmie. He's just . . . a kid. Living in an abandoned shack with cardboard boxes for warmth, stealing anything he can lay his hands on so that he can put a leather jacket on his back and some sandwiches in his mouth.
Bruno has no idea what love or commitment (and the labor involved) means. He goes from day to day, from cheap thrill to cheap thrill, like Rousseau's Noble Savage, minus the philosophy and nobility. The day Sonia gets her apartment back, she and Bruno go to a government office to register Jimmie's birth certificate and while they're waiting in line, she asks the restless Bruno to take Jimmie for a stroll in the baby carriage. He agrees, but once he and the baby are alone he first uses Jimmie to beg change from passersby, and when that doesn't work, calls a broker to sell off his son. Within an hour the deal has been made, and he returns to Sonia with a big smile and brandishing a wad of bills: "Look, we're rich!" And when he sees her stricken face: "Don't worry, we can always make another baby."
It's when Sonia first faints, and then reports his deed to the police that Bruno finally figures out: maybe selling Jimmie wasn't such a hot idea. He endeavors to undo the deal and return the money but this proves more arduous than he bargained for and in the meantime, he has nowhere to go (Sonia refuses to have anything more to do with him) and zero cash. He sells the baby carriage and Sonia's clothes, which get him as far as the local bar where he almost downs a glass of beer before being apprehended by some thugs who have heard about the re-exchange of Jimmie. Bruno is perpetually hounded and hungry and cold -- his only hope for relief is to score a job so he can get some money and possibly convince Sonia to take him back. He gets his 14-year old underling Steve (Jeremie Segard) to do "a job" with him but the whole plan reeks of disaster. All this time, Sonia is steadfast in her maternal instincts; though a mere child herself her priorities are always with Jimmie. Clearly, becoming a mother has made her mature whereas becoming a father has had no immediate effect on Bruno.
"L'Enfant" draws some incredible performances, namely from the two leads who it seems, had been beaten down all their lives. And yet in their different ways they demonstrate a strength of will to somehow get on with life and grab a semblance of happiness.
Hovering like a dark cloud in the backdrop is Belgium's rising unemployment rate among youths and for those without skills, education or connections. Opportunities to better themselves are extremely limited.
Bruno seems propelled in his criminal escapades by resignation more than anything else; he's going to be hungry anyway, so why bother to look for work? The defiance in Bruno's eyes is like a wound and the immediacy of his facial expressions, offset by the coarseness of his skin that is scattered with acne, underscores his utter vulnerability.
Do Bruno and Sonia have a chance? The film leaves the answer pretty much open-ended and, besides, adulthood is never about easy solutions anyway. Without much dialogue or even an expressive soundtrack, "L'Enfant" teaches us what it is to become fully grown-up: to take on the whole burden of existence and still have resources left over to protect and nurture someone else.