Ah, the agony of heightened expectations.

By no means a "bad" film, L'enfant, the winner of the 2005 Palme d'Or is nonetheless a film I expected to enjoy a great deal more than I did. Indeed, it was this ambivalence that led me to withhold this review for so long (at five days, this was the lengthiest viewing-review gap in this blog's history). I kept hoping that as time passed, I might get something, a niggling feeling in the back of my head that wouldn't go away (as with fellow Sélection Officielle Caché), but the further I get from the film, the less I think about it, and for something so willfully Euro-Arty, this is terrible. I have never seen a prior film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers behind Rosetta and Le fils, and there's enough stylistic flourish here that I'm interested in seeing more; but I can't help but look at L'enfant and conclude that there's no "there" there.

The film follows Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and Sonia (Déborah François), two young people (their ages are not made clear, but I'd imagine around 20), who have a newborn baby, Jimmy. Sonia, while not ready to settle down, is at least aware that motherhood carries with it certain responsibilities and duties; Bruno, however, is a monster of immaturity, unable to save money or entertain the thought of a job ("Only fuckers work," he declares at one point). Instead, he lives from day to day on an unending series of petty thefts.

At first, I found the film to be a reasonably engaging if somewhat unexceptional slice-of-life piece. Bruno steals, Bruno buys something fun, Sonia frets that they're poor but doesn't really mind, because they're both kids. There is an obsessive focus on money in the film: a) the value of things; b) the amount Bruno has or is likely to acquire; c) how much he needs to acquire for b) to equal or surpass a). As a portrait of immaturity it's rather effective, and Renier deserves all of his accumulated praise for creating a frivolous delinquent who's just a little too pleasant to hate.

Then comes the twist that I'd hesitate to spoil, except that it appears prominently in the film's trailer: Bruno sells Jimmy. His logic is that he and Sonia can always have another; unsurprisingly she doesn't warm to this, and so begins the epic quest to retrieve the baby and regain Sonia's affections.

The story falters here and never recovers. For one, Bruno is much less interesting when Sonia's not around. Instead, he's paired with the 14 year-old thief in training Steve (Jérémie Segard), his intellectual and emotional equal. I suppose I understand why- giving Bruno a matrix in which to see that he is himself a child, and needs to grow up before the real children get hurt - but it's not anything new. And despite the critical consensus that this film shows us a redemption, I'm not sure that it does. At the end, Bruno cries out of fear and remorse, but there's no sense that he understands his behavior as wrong in any way other than Sonia's refusal to forgive him for it. I do not claim this as a failure; on the contrary, I imagine that this ambiguity is the point. But it leaves the film without a center: why exactly did I spend 95 minutes watching this? In the nihilistic 60's films of a director like Antonioni (who has clearly influenced the brothers Dardenne), there's a sense of why it's right that the audience is denied meaning, but I get nothing like that here.

I mentioned that I liked the film's style, and it is interesting if not nearly so revoltionary as its fans suggest. Virtually every scene in the film is shot as one unbroken, handheld take. The point is, of course, to suggest a documentary-like objectivity (the Dardennes started their career in television documentaries), but both handheld camerawork and a lack of cuts have long been associated with making fiction films seem documentary. So while I acknowledge the complete success of the style, I deny that it is so revolutionary as to justify the accolades the film has received. Still, in the early part of the film, before the plot gets in the way, it adds to the generally engaging "look at these people and their lives" vibe. Oddly, though, I do wish the film had tilted a little more subjectively at the end. Not that I want to be told what to think about themes, but I'm damned if I can figure out what the themes here even are. It's probably worth seeing anyway; for all it's flaws it's a hell of a lot more challenging than anything you'll see by an American in the near future.

Credit where credit's due: despite their (very) superficial similarities, this film is leagues better than Tsotsi.