L’enfant [subtitled]

L'enfant

I’m not sure if L’enfant is a French or Belgian movie, but I think it takes place in Belgium, and they’re speaking French.

I read reviews saying how slow it is, how little dialogue there is, how hyper-realistic and documentary-like it is, and I was a little concerned that while it might be a good movie, it might also be an effort to get through. But I didn’t find it as unconventional or ponderous as those descriptions could lead one to believe. I’d say the pace, the amount of action, the degree to which it held my interest, would rank right around the middle of the movies I’ve written about so far, which means probably slightly better than the average of the foreign movies I’ve written about. L’enfant really isn’t a hard movie to stick with.

A young couple, probably in their teens or early 20s, has just had a baby. The girl tracks down the boy to let him know that she just “got out” (of prison or some kind of incarceration I assume), that the birth went fine, and that she’d hoped he’d visit.

He’s kind of a happy-go-lucky type who can pretty much take or leave any of it. She was probably the farthest thing from his mind while she was in prison, but he’s cool with her being here now. He’s cool with there being a baby too, though he doesn’t much care one way or the other.

She doesn’t have very high standards though, and is willing to overlook the fact that he’s not exactly the most attentive, mature, responsible person. So almost immediately they’re back in a hot and heavy romance, chasing each other around playfully and such.

She chides him mildly for the fact that he spent all their money and even sublet her apartment and spent that money while she was away, but he just laughs it off with a comment about how it’s easy to get money.

He doesn’t have in mind getting it honestly however. At her suggestion that he get a job, he responds “Work is for fuckers.”

He’s a petty thief, purse snatcher, shoplifter, etc. who sometimes works alone and sometimes is assisted by young boys about 13-14. He also does some panhandling (and finds that a baby in a stroller increases his take).

So they’re scuffling, staying in homeless shelters and on the street while he tries to scrape together enough money through nefarious means for them to get a place to live.

He doesn’t seem particularly panicky about their situation—or anything—but almost on impulse one day while he has the child out in the stroller, he remembers he was told by one of his criminal connections that people desperate to adopt will pay top dollar for a healthy baby. So he calls the number he was given and arranges to sell the baby on the spot.

He returns to his girlfriend and openly admits what he’s done, and seems surprised when she shrieks and faints or has some kind of seizure due to being so overwhelmed by the news. (What exactly reaction did you expect, dude? “Oh that’s too bad! I had a baby, now I don’t. Oh well, c’est la vie”?)

He’s able to get the baby back, but his “punishment” from the black market adoption folks is that he must not only return the money he gave them, but a large sum beyond that, which is a crushing debt for him.

The next section of the movie consists of him hanging around his girlfriend and the baby, sheepish and apologetic, trying everything he can think of to get back in her good graces. (“I’m sorry.” “Here, let me help you with that.” “I just thought we’d have more babies anyway.” “Oh, let me get that.” “The money was for us, not for me.” Etc.) To all of which she responds with a stony silence, and an understandably angry look.

Presumably for some artistic reason, the decision was made to give the baby no personality at all, and have it function like an inanimate object. For the bulk of the time it’s on screen, it’s buried in the stroller and can’t really be seen. When it’s taken out, it’s generally all wrapped up where you still can’t see its face. It never cries, and rarely makes any sound at all. I don’t recall that it is ever shown in close up. My impression is that the vast majority of the time it’s not even a baby and is just a prop.

Oddly, I found myself laughing out loud multiple times at this movie, though not because it’s intended to be funny, nor because it’s somehow so godawful as to be unintentionally funny. I’m not real sure why. Maybe just the enormity and unconventionality of his particular sin provoked a nervous laughter. Maybe I found it strangely funny that he was such an irresponsible clown in so many ways.

I think as much as anything I was reacting to the lack of proportion between what he did and how he was trying to make it up to his girlfriend. He acts like they’ve had a minor spat and “Gee I didn’t mean it! C’mon, let’s make up!” whereas she’s reacting (appropriately) like this is someone who just sold her child.

The film is billed as a story of redemption and transformation, where he comes to appreciate the wrongness of what he did and rejoin the moral universe where most people live.

I can see how you can interpret the rest of the movie that way, after he returns the baby, but that’s not entirely unproblematic.

Is there growth? Probably, but he still has a long way to go. He manifests a greater understanding of how much he loves and needs his girlfriend after losing her and realizing how badly he hurt her. But he’s always been very favorably disposed toward her, at least when she’s around.

He definitely displays a caring side toward one of the young boys in his little gang, which maybe he wouldn’t have been able to do before this experience, but then again you can ask why he continues to corrupt this kid by doing crimes with him if he’s had some moral reawakening.

That’s just it. He’s still committing crimes after returning the baby. Even if he is grown up enough now to accept the responsibility to support himself, his girlfriend, and their child, his way of doing that is to steal from people. So maybe he’s better able to recognize the humanity of people very close to him like his girlfriend and the kid in his gang, but crime victims are people too, and he doesn’t seem to have turned over a new leaf as far as they’re concerned.

Insofar as he does come to regret and understand the enormity of what he did, I suspect it’s more about what he feels he did to his girlfriend and to their relationship, not so much what he did to the baby. (Though I suppose you can ask how much selling the baby really would hurt it. It’s a baby, so it doesn’t know what’s going on. And long term it’ll almost certainly be better off with an adoptive family than with a couple of lowlife chain-smoking petty criminals who can’t keep a roof over their heads.)

I don’t know even after his “redemption” that he feels much for the baby itself. I think it’s a lot more common for males than females not to bond with babies. Which is not to say most guys would sell their kid, but for a lot of guys, in the abstract you realize your baby is a person and you love it, but viscerally it doesn’t feel like you’re interacting with a person that you can have strong feelings about. So you go through the motions and say all the right things, but it doesn’t feel like a person to you and feel like someone you can connect with until it starts communicating more and being more functional.

So strangely enough, at a certain level it doesn’t feel all that monstrous that he is insufficiently attached to the baby to prevent him from selling it. To me the bizarre, cruel, clueless part is that he could do that to his girlfriend and somehow be surprised at the severity of her reaction.

The fact that the movie keeps the baby hidden and objectlike makes it a little bit easier to not be stunned and appalled that he isn’t more connected to it, though I’m not sure why it would want to do that.

On the whole, L’enfant is a solid, thoughtful movie. Especially once he sells the baby and the action picks up, it’s an engaging and psychologically interesting film. The chase scenes with the protagonist and his young partner on the scooter are particularly well handled.

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