Those masters of small-scale realism, Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, have created yet another beautifully acted, exquisitely observed morality tale in “The Child,” the story of a directionless young couple whose lives are irretrievably altered when they have a baby. Perfectly consistent with the Dardennes widely lauded work of the last decade, pic won’t do much to win the brothers any new fans (or bigger box office), but will travel far on the fest circuit and attract the interest of the same arthouse distribs that have supported them in the past.
In their three best-known features — “La Promesse,” “Rosetta” and “The Son” — the Dardennes show a particular interest in observing characters through the work they do (or try to do) to survive amid often harsh and forbidding conditions, and “The Child” is no exception. Only here, 20-year-old Bruno (Jeremie Renier, who made his screen debut in “La Promesse”) is defined by his assiduous avoidance of anything resembling a nine-to- five.
He proceeds to piece together a modest income from panhandling and petty theft on the streets of Seraing — the Eastern Belgium steel town that has long served as the Dardennes’ home base.
Bruno’s 18-year-old girlfriend, Sonia (angelic newcomer Deborah Francois), returns home after giving birth to their son, Jimmy, only to find that Bruno has sublet their apartment out to total strangers. It’s a telling scene that offers early indication of how ill prepared Bruno is for parental responsibility, and also shows that, in the world of “The Child,” everything, even a human being, is potentially salable merchandise.
Indeed, the “child” of pic’s title is not necessarily Jimmy — it could be Bruno or even Sonia, who supports Bruno in his illicit dealings and shares in his habit of squandering money on luxuries.
But when Bruno, desperate for cash and terrified at the prospect of raising his son, sells Jimmy to some black-market connections who promise to find the infant an adoptive home, Sonia goes into a state of shock. While she recovers in a hospital, Bruno sets out to undo his fateful deed and, as he does, “The Child” becomes a devastating study in greed, strongly reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s classic “L’Argent.”
Shooting on location with just a few actors and a handheld camera, the Dardennes (who got their start in documentaries) produce a kind of spare, direct cinema that makes most other movies look positively gluttonous by comparison. Yet within that microscopic, claustrophobic canvas, they manage to achieve often-stunning flurries of drama and complex human emotion.
In “The Child,” the key sequence in which Bruno places Jimmy on the auction block unfolds inside an abandoned building, in almost total darkness, during a single unbroken camera take — yet this may be a more riveting suspense set piece than anything in any of the advertised thrillers currently playing on the Croisette. Ditto the entire third act of the film, which keeps the audience in a state of heightened anxiety right up to the enormously moving finale.
Though it doesn’t deploy any formal devices as daring as the relentless over-the-shoulder p.o.v. from which nearly the entirety of the brothers’ last pic “The Son” was shot, “The Child” is nevertheless a technically precise film, lensed by longtime Dardenne collaborator Alain Marcoen with his typical reliance on unfiltered natural light and elegant shallow-space compositions.
Pic also isn’t built around a single, convulsively powerful performance in the way of “The Son” or “Rosetta,” though in the decade since “La Promesse” Renier has developed into a lankily charismatic leading man with a hard, working-class face. Natch, the Dardennes’ good luck charm, Olivier Gourmet, turns in a brief cameo as the detective who interrogates Bruno in one of pic’s hospital scenes.