L'Enfant (or The Child) is the second film that the Dardenne Brothers won the Palme d'Or for (the first being their 1999 film Rosetta), and in the typical Dardenne form, L'Enfant is a dramatic piece grounded by reality and filmed with simplicity.
Following the new parents Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and Sonia (Déborah François) in their low income pocket of France, L'Enfant depicts the couple as young and the husband, Bruno, as childish and immature. Bruno and Sonia name their child Jimmy, and even though they don't have a place to stay, they are still trying to make it work. What Sonia is unaware of is how far into the world of crime Bruno actually is, and when Bruno discovers that he could get €5,000 if he puts their baby on the black market for adoption, he hops on the opportunity instantly without telling Sonia. Upon returning to Sonia with an empty stroller and a wad of cash, Sonia passes out and has to be hospitalized... it is then that Bruno realizes he has to get their baby back.
Filmed almost entirely handheld, completely utilizing natural light, and lacking a musical score, L'Enfant feels like a documentary capturing the mundane moments of life in the poverty stricken corner of France that the protagonists dwell in. This can also be said of all of the Dardenne's films, but it feels best utilized in their previous film Le Fils (2002) which followed a carpenter as he taught his trade to young French boys who had dropped out of school. The sound of buzz saws and hammers created an almost musical vibe in Le Fils that can't be recreated in the context of L'Enfant. L'Enfant is a film much more about silence, patience, and wandering as Bruno chooses to live a simple life as a jobless father (who is also almost never around his girlfriend Sonia).
Actor driven, Jérémie Renier and Déborah François deliver solid performances as young lovers who suddenly have a child, but they also convey a greater sense of pain and sorrow as the events of the film progress.
Where the film nearly falls apart is in several of the essentially self-resolving conflicts. Just when we, as an audience, think things are going to get tough for the main characters, the film suddenly makes it realistically easy (or just as it would be in real life). This aspect of the film only enhances the documentary qualities of the narrative as the film chooses to be un-cinematic in every way (which can be quite unappealing for many audiences).
Though the film is not perfect, it is an acquired taste (as are many of the Dardenne's films), and L'Enfant is filled with wonderful realistic drama. The directors do an amazing job of creating a character (like Bruno) who is easy to feel sympathy for while disagreeing with everything that he does on screen. Yes, the film is at times overly simple, but there are many gut-wrenching scenes and some wildly realistic on-screen events that make the film both exciting and memorable.
My ranking: 4/5 stars