Dardenne Brothers’ episodic L’Enfant too derivative to deserve its acclaim

By Matt Johnston

Bruno belongs in the category of despicable lowlife. He’s an able-bodied, shrewd, intelligent man who does nothing but cheat and lie and steal from everyone around him, even (or especially) those who love him. Watching him for an hour and a half is an unpleasant experience. This negativity, however, does not disqualify L’Enfant from the realm of greatness. What does is the film’s stubborn insistence in casting itself in the image of many so-called classic films. The criteria for this particular type of pseudo-greatness include but are not limited to: a near-complete lack of music; painfully conventional camerawork that takes its cues from movies made in or before 1935; dispassionately detached characters who generally do not react to their surroundings except during grand gestures of enormous, repressed emotion; and a meandering storyline that refuses to concentrate on any interesting developments it runs across in its progression.

I mean that list facetiously, but not completely facetiously. Those of you who voraciously and indiscriminately enjoy the works of Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, and Jean Vigo will probably enjoy this film despite its minimalism and, in my opinion, rather obnoxious assumption that the audience will pump meaning into the experience to replace a lack of conventional content. Those who have loved it seem to love it for the very reasons that I find it lazy and unnecessary. Ed Gonzalez of Slant magazine writes: “The wobbly camera, back-of-the-head shots, oblique framing, and lack of mood music represents its own artifice, but the cumulative emotional and spiritual effect of these films feels scarcely premeditated.” I agree with this statement up until the bit about emotional and spiritual effects, as all L’Enfant offers in these departments is the aforementioned clichéd explosions of emotions that come when a completely amoral character suddenly develops the need to cry his eyes out. Bruno is no exception to this tried-and-false rule of boring foreign film.

Scott Foundas over at Variety observes that the third act “keeps the audience in a state of heightened anxiety right up to the enormously moving finale.” The third act is the one with action, as Bruno and his peewee accomplice snatch a purse and then flee. If the sequence works for an audience, it works because it is a cheap trick—a sudden bit of action and excitement in an otherwise beige screenplay. The film tells a story that should be instantly enthralling as it allows us to vividly experience a completely different world. Exploring Bruno’s pathetic life as he mistreats his girlfriend Sonia and their newborn baby should be fascinating and important.

Bruno is the type of unimpressive criminal we read about toward the end of the newspaper—he doesn’t create exciting headlines, but it is important to understand him because he is not motivated by any conventional incentives. If he did not feel that work was “for fuckers,” he could probably make a better living from a weekly paycheck and maybe even be able to avoid sleeping under bridges when Sonia is angry. But L’Enfant is too involved in its own realism to ask the right questions. All films are incomplete selections from larger stories; this film goes after the parts that are less interesting. Bruno makes a horrible choice involving his child midway through this particular telling of his story. If you have read anything about the movie, you may already be aware of the choice, but it happens late enough in the film to be a spoiler in my book. The choice deserves careful interpretation, but it feels like one episode in a series of unfortunate adventures.

Of course, it is easier to criticize than praise. I believe that Foundas, Gonzalez and others are sincere in their praise, that they were genuinely moved by this movie. My argument is not that you will not likewise be moved, though many of you will not be. It is that positive reactions to this film are based far more on what one brings in than what takes place on screen. This is a bland work, a representation of all that is wrong with the so-called classics, which rely as much on one’s knowledge of famous reviews of a film as on the film itself.

L’Enfant meanders, wastes important opportunities to explore an underrepresented slice of society, and ultimately relies on melodrama to create its emotional climax. That you will be able to have an interesting conversation after it does not make L’Enfant great. You could do that just by reading the reviews, which will lay out all the themes and spoilers for you in careful order. In doing that, you will have the experience of the film: a dry telling of an interesting story without anything in the way of music, cinematography, believable character development, or earned emotional impact.