Wednesday, 13 June 2012
(Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2005) By the time they came to make The Child, Belgian writer-director brothers the Dardennes had honed their method to a fine edge. After a couple of decades making documentaries they had found success with The Promise in 1996 and perfected the techniques they used there over another two realist dramas before tackling The Child. Those techniques are remarkably consistent and tremendously effective. They shoot using natural, available light, with handheld cameras and usually in long takes. There is no music. Their stories are all set in the grim, post-industrial city of Seraing in Liege, Belgium. Those stories feel like fables; they are generally beautifully simple, with a few principle characters and one plot line. And yet they can be transcendent in effect. They deal, on the surface at least, with economic hardship, petty crime and everyday moral dilemmas. Yet they address themes of spirituality and belief, hope and redemption. The acting is naturalistic, and the brothers block the action and position their camera in such a way as to make themselves wholly invisible, their fictional world entirely absorbing. Their films, then, are powerful, moving, and even, in the case of moments in The Child, incredibly gripping. It follows Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and Sonia (Déborah François), a young couple, barely surviving on welfare and the proceeds of Bruno's petty crime in the aftermath of the birth of their first child, Jimmy. Bruno, an irresponsible, selfish manchild, seems unmoved by the appearance of the baby, distracted by panhandling, organising burglaries and sleeping rough. Quickly he decides to sell the child for adoption. When Sonia reacts with horror, he has to buy the baby back, finds himself in debt to gangsters and without his girlfriend. From there, Bruno only gets more desperate. Renier and François both underplay it, giving their relationship an unforced, plain feel which is believable throughout. Renier is marvellous, the camera trained on him for most of the running time, and though his actions are monstrous, the audience wills him towards redemption and maturity. This is partly due to the Dardennes incredible ability to observe with a complete neutrality - their camera is cold and utterly without judgement - but also down to Renier's natural likeable quality and onscreen charisma. His journey is at times agonising - a couple of gruelling bus rides out to run-down suburbs are weighted with dread - and finally suspenseful, when a crime he has arranged goes wrong. The Dardennes' method seems to work for any kind of story - it always feels truthful and unvarnished, and only adds a layer or immediacy to the peril Bruno finds himself struggling with here. Yet it is also ideal for finding the emotion in the ambiguity of the ending and suggesting a bit more depth than is immediately apparent in any synopsis. This may be the tale of a young man discovering his own humanity, or it may simply be about a petty criminal feeling sorry for himself. Part of the brilliance of these filmmakers is that they let the viewer decide.