Bruno is a 20-year-old panhandler who runs a very small petty theft ring in a small industrial city in Belgium. How small is very small? Bruno’s ring consists of two boys in their early teens, and these kids can only commit larceny between school lessons.
Bruno’s 18-year-old girlfriend Sonia just had Bruno’s baby. It is a boy named Jimmy. Bruno looks at Jimmy from a more commercial than paternal view: when Sonia is waiting to collect her unemployment benefits, he sells Jimmy to a black market adoption ring. Sonia collapses upon discovering Jimmy is gone and she is hospitalized. Bruno scrambles to get Jimmy back before the cops are called on him.
In concept, “L’Enfant” should be a taut, compelling drama. But under the joint direction of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, it is a lethargic, often slovenly chore. The film has absolutely nothing resembling genuine emotion, even in moments of intense melodrama (Bruno treats Sonia’s collapse like something that happens every day – it’s no big deal). There is even a very late chase sequence which is so sluggish it looks like it was shot in slow motion. There are turtle races with more energy than the chase in “L’Enfant” – and with more charismatic players, too.
Much of the problem comes from actor Jeremie Renier as Bruno. He has no camera presence and is never convincing when the script calls him to emote (either tears, pain, laughs – it is the amateur hour whenever his big scenes come). He is not an anti-hero – he is just an anti-actor. Deborah Francois makes her film debut as Sonia. She will do better in her future films.
“L’Enfant” won the Palme D’Or at Cannes and is Belgium’s entry for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. If this is the best of Cannes and Brussels, then the pickings must be awfully slim across the Atlantic.