Yesterday I watched L'Enfant (released as The Child in the United States), a movie about a young Belgian couple and their newborn. Directed by the Dardenne brothers, a filmmaking duo as acclaimed in Europe as the Coens are here, it received the Palmes d'Or in 2005, and its nuanced, unglamorous neorealism won the admiration of nearly every critic who reviewed it.
I viewed the film with both rapt attention and a certain impatience. L'Enfant is, in many ways, unimpeachably good art: it enters a world unfamiliar to most of us -- a world of petty crime and panhandling in a bleak industrial section of Europe -- and takes it all in with an observant, intelligent, nonjudgmental eye. There is no exegesis, no editorializing, no contextualization, no prettification, no apology. With their relentlessly fascinated camera, the Dardennes see what there is to see: the little spots of color and joy, the undistinguished sins, the dangers. They have conjured the kid on the street corner, and they watch him without seeking to manipulate him. So when he's in trouble, we bite our fingernails not because they've found some way to position him in front of us so that he seems admirable or even sympathetic; we do it because he's real. It's not a boring movie. The only really valid complaint I could have summoned as I watched it would have been that occasionally, when the baby is wrapped up in that puffy blue snowsuit, you can tell there's not actually a baby in there.
And yet my impatience -- at first I was inclined to blame it on my general tiredness of the tropes of neorealism, of serious filmmakers' dependence on that conspicuously valid artistic stance available to anyone who owns a handheld digital camera, lives near a grim apartment block, and is willing to forgo his sense of humor. Every year these wholly respectable, documentary-style examinations of social problems (the drug trade, prostitution, vagrant youth) are shipped to educated Americans from the world's great film festivals -- Maria Full of Grace, Lilja 4-Ever, and Chop Shop come to mind -- and are consumed with such dutiful reverence that few critics seem to notice how predictable they can be. In L'Enfant, there is an interlude where Bruno, the ne'er-do-well protagonist, and Sonia, his pretty blond girlfriend, are frolicking in the sunshine and kissing each other ebulliently, and we know instantly that in just a little while Bruno is going to do something very stupid and destroy their brief happiness. Compare this to the scene in Chop Shop where the reunited brother and sister, living amid poverty, are tickling each other so giddily and affectionately that we become certain at once that something terrible will soon happen to that little boy. This juxtaposition is an old-fashioned, sentimental technique and is antithetical to these films' commitment to impartial realism. Yet both of the scenes I mentioned are, on their own independent terms, very nicely handled. In L'Enfant, the passionate young lovers both happen (with a silly incongruity that unmistakably bespeaks real life) to be holding sandwiches as they embrace -- a wonderful touch that throws things off ever so slightly. In Chop Shop, the brother and sister seem so genuinely happy in their horseplay that they actually transcend the sort of Oliver Twist pitiableness inherent to the story; one actually feels envious of their bond.
So one can't really accuse these of movies of shoddiness. There's something else. I should here mention L'Enfant's central plot development: Bruno -- who, in addition to being the 20-year-old father of his girlfriend Sonia's baby, is a thoughtless, casually amoral crook, a banality-of-evil type -- decides to sell his infant son, having heard that there are rich, infertile couples who will pay handsomely for the boy. But he never actually meets the buyers. He leaves the child in an empty building, the child is picked up by an unseen "fence," and the money is left behind for Bruno. Sonia, completely oblivious to her boyfriend's plan, has merely entrusted him with the baby for the day; when they meet up again, he shows her the cash, thinking she'll actually be pleased by the deal he's made. She asks what has happened to her son. "We can have another one!" he says, and she faints.
Ebert, who admired L'Enfant tremendously, articulated the Dardennes' technique in his review: "There is a theological belief that God gives us free will and waits to see how we will use it. . . . It's with that in mind that the visual strategy of the Dardennes reflects the eye of God. Having made a universe that has set this creature Bruno into motion, God (and we) look to see what he will do. Bruno has little intellectual capital and a limited imagination. . . . Here is a film where God does not intervene . . ."
Of course, the Dardennes are not God; they don't have to look at Bruno. They choose to, and when we watch movies like L'Enfant, we're choosing to, as well. From the elated reviews that this movie has inspired, it seems that people enjoy looking at him. Why? What I suspect -- and this is what I hate -- is that viewers enjoy watching Bruno precisely because they're not Bruno. The educated Americans who watch Belgian art-house cinema, in particular, are nothing like Bruno, and when they watch L'Enfant, they know it and are glad of it.
In The Bicycle Thief, we were supposed to see, through De Sica's dispassionate lens, how hard life is; the idea was to move us to tears without any manipulation, without any cheap tricks -- this is how bleak and unfair the world really is. The three modern examples of neorealism that I cited earlier -- Lilja 4-Ever, Maria Full of Grace, and Chop Shop -- exist in the same mode.
But what effect does documentary-style realism actually have upon the viewer? Does neorealism's objectivity -- by which I mean the absence of the usual devices that influence an audience to feel one way or another (the absence, in particular, of stylized acting, stylized cinematography, stylized writing, stylized sets) -- make its stories more real to its audience or less real? At Lilja 4-Ever, the audience is moved by the heroine's struggles, but maybe they're also a little relieved that "that's not my life." L'Enfant, because its protagonist is so aggressively unlikable, more clearly reveals the result of this kind of filmmaking. Its third-person impartiality -- we see things not from Bruno's point of view but from God's -- discourages us from identifying with Bruno. We see him from the outside, are free to examine his ugliness without sharing in it. If there's anything going on inside him, he's not able to tell us about it; he's such an uncommunicative lump, in fact, that he almost seems to belong to another species. And we are interested in him only in the way that children are interested in animals at the zoo -- isn't he strange, and so unlike us? For all their concentration upon Bruno, the Dardennes don't bring us closer to him; they remind us how far away we are. It feels good to be perched on the lofty cloud with God, looking down. If not to flatter its audience, why does this movie exist?
Because it's the truth, you'll say. If the Dardennes had attempted to imbue Bruno with some recognizable humanity, the movie would have been a big soppy lie, you'll say. There are people like Bruno, you'll say, and we're not like them.
To that I say: please leave me out of this smugness. I submit that the kind of "truth" exhibited by L'Enfant does not exist at all. The truth witnessed by a detached, God-like observer is a fiction; there is no detached, God-like observer, and the only truth is the truth inside Bruno and the truth inside Sonia and the truth inside the lady whose purse Bruno snatches. If the Dardennes cannot find their way inside these characters -- stolid, inarticulate Bruno would have been a tough nut for any artist to crack -- they should probably pick different characters. Unless you believe that art should serve the same purpose as a convenience-store security camera, then L'Enfant is not a worthwhile aesthetic experience. The Dardennes cannot make us be Bruno, but you don't have to be Bruno. You just have to be enough like him to understand his truth -- or at least some small part of it -- and then you can evaluate it.
And you are enough like him to do this; that's why storytelling works. It's the imaginative act that judges and, in some way, forgives, even when it doesn't. But the Dardennes, it seems, haven't chosen to be storytellers. They've chosen to be bystanders: they never intervene, and that's the problem.