Like Bresson and Renoir did before them, the Dardenne brothers tend to inspire reviews using vaguely Christian words like transcendence from critics trying to describe the way a transparent film style can result in such fully formed, singular movies. At least one such reviewer has already referred to their newest masterpiece, L'Enfant, as a miracle, but, alas, it is not so. Like the Dardennes' previous pinnacles — La Promesse, Rosetta, and The Son — L'Enfant handles weighty themes like guilt and redemption with awesome grace. But to liken the film to an act of God surely takes something from the technical precision and artistic concentration that so informs cinema Dardenne.
While their breakthrough may have come on the stage at Cannes, Luc and his brother Jean-Pierre cut their teeth on a decade of vérité-style documentary work before making their first fiction film, 1987's Falsch. Much has been made of the way the fly-on-the-wall documentary technique has informed the Dardennes' fiction work, and, indeed, it's hard to think of anyone exploring the tension between realism and reality as fruitfully. L'Enfant's camera isn't as doggedly shaky as in the earlier films, but the general long-take style is still present: Conversations and characterizations are mediated by constant reframing instead of by cuts. The Dardennes' ability to narrate with single takes, conveying information and drama via performance, framing, and an impeccable, Bressonian use of sound, means the brothers belong in any discussion of cinema's long-take masters (a table that many, including Gus Van Sant and Richard Linklater, wish to eat at). Had he been alive to see L'Enfant, celebrated French critic and letting-the-camera-run aficionado André Bazin would surely have turned in a sparkling review.
Described as a sketch, L'Enfant's story is the stuff of melodrama. A penniless teenage mother (Déborah Francois) wanders with her baby in search of the father. Played by a ravaged Jérémie Renier (La Promesse), père Bruno is a decidedly small-time crook. Always looking for a score, he sells the newborn to back-alley adoption agents when mother Sonia isn't around. As with all Dardenne stories, though, there is redemption: The baby is recovered, and Bruno ends up assuming responsibility for an unrelated theft to spare an underage accomplice.
If this sounds like a nail-biting character study, though, the story plays more mutedly than one might expect. Like much art cinema, the Dardennes use an oblique film style to distance us from characters and de-emphasize narrative spectacle. For the brothers, this strategy isn't used for the sake of vague artiness but rather to convey their filmed stories as moral parables. One of the key sequences of L'Enfant is the one in which Bruno sells his baby. There is a sort of tension that builds as he rides the bus toward a rendezvous point in a single long take, but it's of an infinitely quieter and more reflective sort than the kind produced by a comparable scene in Oscar-winner Tsotsi. A couple of cuts and a few rings of Bruno's cell phone later, our protagonist is waiting in a barren apartment while the baby's "adopter" operates next door — a climax narrated entirely by offscreen sound. The scene conveys an outrageous misdeed, but any judgment or repulsion has been sucked out by the Dardennes' removed perspective; as such, Bruno's betrayal seems less a crime against humanity than an action, an inevitable result of his role as the thief.