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Baby in the Balance

Belgian prize-winner L'Enfant mixes guilt with crushing sadness.



It's a black-market goods-for-money exchange, and it happens too easily: On a whim you make a few phone calls and set up the meeting. You follow directions to an anonymous building, place your merchandise on the floor of one room, go into the next, close the door, and wait, listening to the silence tick by as the anonymous buyer examines the wares you've left. As you wait, the gravity of the situation hits you, and your doubts begin to scream. You get another call: all clear. The purchase has been made. There's an envelope full of cash waiting for you.

It's payment for your newborn baby.

So it goes in the central sequence in L'Enfant, the newest film from the Belgian filmmakers the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc. The story centers on Bruno, a young, low-life punk who's into small-time robberies, trying to cobble together enough cash to get through another week. For Bruno, cash is an end unto itself. He can't wait to acquire more -- and then frivolously spend it.

As the film opens, Bruno's girlfriend Sonia has just been discharged from the hospital along with their one-week-old son, Jimmy. Once reunited, Bruno and Sonia can't keep their hands off each other. Seeing the baby as a hindrance to their spendthrift life, assuming Sonia feels the same and seeing an opportunity for a big score, Bruno sets up the illegal adoption that will haunt him in more ways than one throughout the rest of the film.

Jérémie Renier plays Bruno. Renier looks like a young Klaus Kinski, minus the brilliant blue eyes. Without Kinski's piercing eyes, or any life in his own, Renier seems less a calculating criminal than a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants troublemaker. Renier perfectly embodies both Bruno's pre-guilt flippancy and the great silence that follows his betrayal.

The Dardennes won the Palme d'Or (first prize) for L'Enfant at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival (as they did for their 1999 film Rosetta). Here their style is not overtly cinematic: There are no showy visuals, just hand-held-camera storytelling. One of the central images in the film -- Bruno pushing a baby carriage around the European cityscape -- is portrayed simply. This is a thousand miles away from the prams of Eisenstein or De Palma. It is filmmaking without artifice. In its simplicity, it's simply art.

The absence of style is well suited. As lurid as the subject matter is, the film does not descend into pulp fiction. Even when violence does happen in L'Enfant, as when one character goes after another with a knife or a gang roughs up a man who has welshed on a debt, it happens either so suddenly that the camera can't keep up with the action or it takes place in shadow, just at the periphery of the camera's focus. The Dardennes know this is ultimately a coming-of-age story, and the emotions behind those violent activities are pure and present. To treat the characters with anything other than honest intentions would be a disservice.

The Dardennes lead the audience through a forest thick with recrimination, guilt, and crushing sadness, and their film testifies that sometimes you have to go to extreme measures to re-prove -- and reprove -- yourself.

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