Dardenne Brothers Follow Down and Out in Belgium

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s L’Enfant (The Child), from their own screenplay (in French with English subtitles), is the first release to appear in the city this year with more than a touch of greatness. L’Enfant was reportedly inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), though it’s more reminiscent of the latter, particularly in the exquisitely redemptive final sequence. The film’s two major characters are 20-year-old Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and his 18-year old girlfriend, Sonia (Déborah Françoise). They live a hand-to-mouth existence in Seraing, a steel town in eastern Belgium, he as a petty thief with a small gang of schoolchildren as his accomplices, and she on her unemployment benefits. Their lives change dramatically and convulsively when Sonia gives birth, unattended by Bruno, to a baby boy they name Jimmy. After promising to reform for the boy’s sake, Bruno casually takes the opportunity to sell the baby to black marketers in illegal adoptions. When Sonia learns that Bruno has sold the infant, she faints, and when Bruno can’t revive her, he takes her to the hospital and then sets out to get the baby back, which places him in a dangerous position with his thug-like black-market contacts.

Though he does eventually return Jimmy to Sonia, she refuses to forgive him for his callous act. Homeless and hungry, Bruno attempts one last purse-snatching from a motor scooter with one of his schoolboy partners. Bruno is nearly captured by the police, but he manages to escape, though his partner is caught.

At this moment in his life, Bruno realizes that he has reached rock bottom and makes the one decision that can lead to his salvation. It is a moment like all of the film’s other great moments, one free of undue histrionics. Bruno, in some ways, is even more of a child than his infant son Jimmy. Indeed, we very seldom see Jimmy’s face being exploited for its sentimental evocation or helpless innocence; Jimmy is mostly a faceless bundle clutched in his mother’s arms or an invisible presence in a baby carriage.

In their joint directors’ statement, the Dardennes suggest the genesis of their project: “The film probably dates from a day during the shooting of our previous film (The Son). We were in Seraing, Belgium, on Rue du Molinay. In the morning, afternoon and evening, we saw a girl pushing a pram along, with a newborn baby asleep inside it. She didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular—just around and around with the pram. We have often thought back to this girl, her pram, the sleeping child, and the missing character: the child’s father. This absent figure would become our story …. A love story that is also the story of a father.”

Cinematographer Alain Marcoen’s relentless intimacy—achieved with a hand-held camera that never drifts too far from Bruno and Sonia, both alone and together—poignantly expresses their isolation from the workaday world around them. Their feelings for each other before the fateful rupture are communicated with a playfully childlike physicality, and Bruno and Sonia remain from beginning to end almost completely inarticulate on the verbal level. The social entities with which they deal—police, hospitals, bureaucrats, landlords, salespeople, pawnbrokers—tend to be coldly impersonal. For a time, Bruno employs the baby carriage in his begging on the streets. He ends up selling it for food money.

The Dardenne brothers made their big international breakthrough in narrative feature films 10 years ago with La Promesse (The Promise) (1996), which featured Mr. Renier, the lead in L’Enfant, in his first prominent role as a contractor’s son who promises a dying and exploited African laborer that he will take care of the laborer’s wife and children. This the son does, despite his father’s disapproval. The Dardenne brothers have been fixtures at film festivals ever since with the much-honored Rosetta (1999) and Le Fils (The Son) (2002), which both won awards at Cannes. Then came L’Enfant, in 2005, which gave the Dardennes their second Palm d’Or.

With their long experience in socially conscious documentaries, telling the stories of losers and underdogs in the much-heralded global free marketplace so beloved by our plutocratic leaders comes naturally to the Dardenne brothers. What distinguishes L’Enfant from many similarly egalitarian movies is that it stays so close to its protagonists that there is not the slightest hint of condescension in the steadfast gaze of the filmmakers. The result of this visual obsession is the rare glimpse we are provided into the souls of characters whom we might otherwise too easily dismiss as hopeless nonentities. Ms. Françoise, who makes her acting debut here as Sonia, is a miracle of womanly compassion in her climactic emotional entanglement with Mr. Renier’s errant but repentant Bruno.


Director and cinematographer Rupert Murray and producer Beadie Finzi’s Unknown White Male is presented as the true story of how Doug Bruce, a successful former stockbroker, struggles to learn who he was and what he will become after he purportedly lost his memory one strange summer night in July 2003. Riding alone on a subway headed toward Coney Island, he came to realize that he couldn’t remember his name, where he worked, who his friends were, how much money he had in his bank account or where he lived. Turning himself in at a police station with this story, he was briefly hospitalized and underwent two M.R.I.’s, two C.A.T. scans, 26 blood tests and a plethora of psychiatric evaluations, all of which failed to properly diagnose what turned out to be the rarest and most startling form of memory loss: retrograde amnesia.

I have seen the movie and read all the production notes, and I cannot decide what I think or even suspect about the mini-mystery that has been raised here, or in the speculations of some reviewers about the authenticity of Mr. Bruce’s experience. After all, the producer met Mr. Bruce for the first time just before he lost his memory. “I remember thinking Doug was very cool, and a little intimidating,” Ms. Finzi recalls. “If I remember rightly, he got us into a club and then disappeared.” Four months later, his own past life allegedly disappeared from his mind.

Mr. Murray, on the other hand, had known Mr. Bruce for nearly two decades, and their friendship was anchored by an active social life in their native London and Paris, where Mr. Bruce worked as a stockbroker. “We were very young, in our early twenties, having a good time, running wild,” recalls Mr. Murray, now on board as his old friend’s chronicler.

I wish that I could say I was more fascinated by the film, but I found Mr. Bruce himself to be strikingly uninteresting as a subject. His perpetually befuddled expressions may be clinically accurate, but his ultra-chic biographical credentials raise the suspicion of an ultra-refined boredom at work. Still, I do not wish to jump to the conclusion that he and Mr. Murray are engaged in an elaborate conspiracy to deceive us. For one thing, it would take an amazing degree of narcissism on Mr. Bruce’s part to engage in such a bizarre attention-getting prank, especially given that many people in their 30’s change their lives, their professions and their loved ones without claiming to be amnesiacs.

In any case, all kinds of identity theft and memoir mendacity are in the news these days, and I have lost count of all the fictional movies I have seen based on these subjects. Hence, it is easier to avoid banality by claiming that something really, really happened than by attempting to fashion an imaginative fiction on the subject. As it is, Mr. Murray fails to impress me with his visual extravaganzas devoted to ordinary natural phenomena supposedly being witnessed for the first time, as it were. Nor was I particularly overwhelmed by the interview with Dr. Daniel Schacter, a professor in the psychology department at Harvard University, on the subject of memory and amnesia. I was particularly amused by the sheer vagueness of many of his distinctions, particularly the one between “semantic” memory, which we all share, and “episodic” memory, which defines us as individuals. It seems that when Mr. Bruce was in the hospital, he could still sign his name and speak French. One might wonder about this, if one cared—but in this instance, one doesn’t.

Dardenne Brothers Follow  Down and Out in Belgium