STANDARD LIEGE : Dardenne & Dardenne’s ‘The Child’ [6/10]

When reviewing a film by the Dardenne brothers, critics will often make some facetious comment about how unflatteringly the writer-director pair portray their home town of Seraing – the location used for five of their six fictional feature films: "unlikely to boost the local tourist industry," or some such dry remark. Seraing, population 60,000, is an unremarkable, small-to-medium-sized town on the outskirts of Liege, the steel city which is the largest 'metropolis' in the French-speaking half of Belgium known as Wallonia.

Seraing and Liege are connected by the river Meuse; the Dardennes' production-company is called Les Films du Fleuve ('Films of the River'). Here's how one visitor sums the region up:

     The road from Liège to Seraing is lined for kilometers with hydra-headed
     concrete smokestacks belching, like park drunkards, seemingly all hours
     of the day… 
Here and there, abandoned warehouses, disused train stations,
     rusted industrial overpasses and buildings with broken-in windows lay about
     like rotting carcasses, casualties of a relentless but indiscriminate push to
     modernization.*

It's a backdrop familiar to anyone who has seen the Dardennes' Je pense a vous (I Think of You, 1992), La promesse (The Promise, 1996), Rosetta (1999, winner of the Cannes Palme d'Or), Le Fils (The Son, 2002) or their latest, L'enfant (The Child, 2005) – which also received the Cannes top prize (for the record, the only other currently-active directors who have received two outright Palmes are Bille August and Emir Kusturica).

In these films Seraing looks dingy, depressed and dark – but in a way the Dardennes' remarkable success has put the town on the map, and it wouldn't be surprising in the least if some of the brothers' more devoted fans (and there are quite a few of them out there) had made a 'pilgrimage' to the area, to see the grimy desolation which has proved such an unlikely inspiration.

But you don't actually need to visit Belgium in order to visit Seraing: these are universal stories, variations of which will be unfolding in every town and city all over the world. Seraing is to the Dardennes what St Mary Mead was to Miss Marple: Agatha Christie's fictional detective so carefully and patiently scrutinised the foibles of human behaviour on her own doorstep that she was able to comprehend the entire world (William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County is a variation on a similar idea; likewise James Benning's assertion that 'landscape is a function of time.')

In The Child, the story is one of redemption and the dawning of moral conscience. The focus is on Bruno (Jeremie Renier), a small-time criminal of around 20, whose girlfriend Sonia (Deborah Francois) has just given birth to a child, Jimmy. It isn't clear whether or not Bruno is the father of the child: he certainly doesn't show much in the way of love or concern for the infant, and is more preoccupied with obtaining cash by begging or stealing. His 'gang' comprises a pair of schoolkids who don't look much older than 13 – including the eager-to-please Steve (Jeremie Segard) – and it's telling that Bruno, whose behaviour is impulsive and immature, doesn't hang out with crooks of his own age. The arrival of Jimmy puts an extra burden on Bruno's financial needs – and his reaction is to 'sell' the baby for adoption. He soon realises the extent of his error – but this proves to be only the first step on a painful process towards taking responsibility for his actions…

The Dardennes are humanists of the old school: like, say, George Eliot, their goal is the 'extension of sympathy' – to bring us into 'contact' with those who we, the comfortably-off arthouse-patronising audience, would very probably go to considerable lengths to avoid in real life. Of course, it helps that Bruno and Sonia are reasonably good-looking kids: not model-handsome by any means, but rather more attractive than, say, the equally cash-strapped protagonists of, say, Adam & Paul, or any picture by Mike Leigh. Their escapades – presented via Alain Marcoen's hand-held, no-nonsense, up-close-and-personal camerawork – have a certain nouvelle vague charm, and there's a touch of Belmondo in the way Bruno wears his cheap leather trilby.

And though Bruno isn't by any means a likeable character (leaving aside his criminality, a little of his and Sonia's coltish horseplay goes rather a long way) we detect a fundamental decency in him, the chance that his future isn't necessarily going to be one long descent into the underworld's abyss. Crucial to this is a sequence when he and Steve grab a bundle of cash from a businesswoman, leading to an unexpectedly pulse-racing chase through the Seraing streets (the victim and a passer-by in a car, Bruno and Steve on a scooter). The pair end up hiding in the chilly waters of the Meuse for a few moments – enough for the rail-thin Steve to suffer the early stages of hypothermia. The consequences of this episode are what belatedly set Bruno on the path to responsibility, adulthood and redemption – making us wonder who 'the child' of the title actually is.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne has stated that "We are all children – everyone is a child in the film." Not an especially helpful remark: little Jimmy is, of course, a tiny babe (but one who plays such a passive role in proceedings that no viewer will realise he's played by an astonishing 21 different infant 'performers'); Bruno and Sonia aren't much more than kids themselves; Steve, despite his feral ways, is clearly still just a boy. But how is the plainclothes cop (Olivier Gourmet) who interrogates Bruno a child? If everyone is a child, then surely nobody is a child: the word is sapped of its meaning. The title does provides plenty of food for thought, but the ambiguity is much less fruitful than was the case with The Son. That isn't the only comparison which works to The Child's disadvantage: in The Son every word, shot and event played its part, with everything superfluous discarded. The Child, on the other hand, feels that little bit more heavy-handed – especially the very last scene, which could have made its point with much greater economy.

There's no doubting the seriousness and admirable, socially-conscious sincerity of what the Dardennes are doing here – but as a viewing experience, The Child is naggingly unsatisfying, with several stretches where the director's "patient" approach tips over into a punishing, ostentatious kind of tedium. The script feels oddly misfocussed, concentrating on Bruno to the extent that Sonia and Steve (whose stories are equally valid and interesting) are relegated to the sidelines for too long. And there's also a sense that the Dardennes are – like Bruno and Steve in the Meuse – treading water: their formula has proved astonishingly successful, and indeed is now being emulated with varying degrees of success (see Guillaume Malandrin's shameless I Don't Care if Tomorrow Never Comes). If you didn't know, you might well guess that The Child was the product of one of these imitators, rather than the Dardennes themselves: Seraing-by-numbers, if you like.

Neil Young
17th April, 2006

THE CHILD : [6/10] : L'enfant : Belgium (Bel/Fr) 2005 : Jean-Pierre DARDENNE & Luc DARDENNE : 95 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 14th April 2006 – public show

* I got on the Quai de Rome just north of the Meuse river and followed this road westward for about 10 miles through Seraing and Engis. Though this stretch looked inviting on the map, it is…ummm…quite a letdown in reality. Liège and its sprawl are in dire need of some enlightened urban planning. The river, for example, had been effectively choked off by a dual-carriage way on the south bank and an equally fast highway on the north bank. Now, call me cynical, but what does a city the size of Liège need both highways for? This clueless road planning is matched only by an equally appalling lack of aesthetic planning: the road from Liège to Seraing is lined for kilometers with hydra-headed concrete smokestacks belching, like park drunkards, seemingly all hours of the day, even this early Sunday morning. Here and there, abandoned warehouses, disused train stations, rusted industrial overpasses and buildings with broken-in windows lay about like rotting carcasses, casualties of a relentless but indiscriminate push to modernization. No wonder the cars whizzing by me were in such a hurry. They didn't want to spend any more time looking at these eyesores than necessary. The frustrating thing was that other cities would kill to have a riverside area they can pedestrianize, develop, and showcase to visitors. To draw tourists. To provide an oasis amidst the bustle of city life. Not Liège. It's seemed too industrial-minded for such nonsense. Such a shame.                   Gerry Soto

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Trop, restent hors de toute la nuit
Trop, mais c'est bien
Trop, le font í  lui
Trop, le font maintenant encore
Trop, jeu pour Stienies
Trop, jeu pour l'argent comptant
Trop, mis vers le haut ou fermé vers le haut
Trop n'est pas assez
Ah, non ! Bruno !
Trop n'est pas assez
Trop, a frappé les boí®tes de nuit
Trop, champagne de boissons
Trop, double boudine
Trop, font cela encore
Trop, restent hors de toute la nuit
Trop, mais c'est bien
Trop, un si grand type
Trop n'est pas assez
Ah, non ! Bruno !
Trop n'est pas assez
Trop, aucun s'échapper
Trop, vous avez été encadré
Trop, les cannettes de fil frappent
Trop, aucun pas encore
Ah, non ! Bruno !
Trop n'est pas assez
Dix
Vingt pour deux
Trente pour six
Vous fils de putain, allez !
Ah, non ! Bruno !
Trop, trop, trop