The Child Review
True to form, there has been no great change in technique or working method in the latest film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which depicts the circumstances of society’s marginal characters trying to get over the hurdles that life throws in their way. The Child is shot mostly on a handheld camera with no apparent consideration for framing or composition, there is no music score and the actors behave with utmost realism and scarcely any indication of a performance. Even the subject matter seems to be familiar here, with original actors Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier returning to the same location of Seraing where they appeared in the Dardenne Bros. 1996 film, La Promesse.
Here an older Renier plays Bruno, a petty criminal who works with a group of delinquent youths, acting as their organiser and dealer for the goods they steal. When his girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) returns to their apartment, just out of hospital where she has given birth to their child, she finds that Bruno has rented their apartment out to a friend, leaving them to spend their first night with their newborn child in a homeless shelter. Bruno is incapable of owning anything or holding onto any possessions – everything has its price and can be bought or sold – the place where he lives, the hat off his head, even their child is just another commodity to Bruno, one that is potentially worth a lot of money to him. Finding out from one of his contacts that people are willing to pay to adopt children, Bruno takes his nine-week old son Jimmy for a walk and, without Sonia’s knowledge sells the child to some shady people who pay him more money than he has ever had. “We can have another”, he tells the distraught Sonia, seemingly unaware of the severity of the monstrous act he has committed.
The Child maintains a taut steady tension throughout the first half of the film, with Bruno maintaining a wheeling-dealing lifestyle that seems at odds with the arrival of a newborn baby. Rough and grim as the first half of the film may be, it reaches its peak at the centre point when Bruno sells the child and then it performs a remarkable flip into even darker territory with such symmetrical precision that the first half consequently takes on the aspect of having been the light-hearted twin of the second half. Similar motifs are repeated – Bruno is the one knocking on the door of an apartment to no answer; the surfeit of money that he had in the first half becomes a proportional debt in the second half; the selling for profit becomes selling for a loss; and a ride on a motorcycle rather than delivering a child, brings about the loss of another.
The Dardenne Brothers film all this with their customary objectivity and impassiveness and, as a consequence, the purpose of the film is as unclear as ever. Is it a social commentary or a case study? Is the film saying something about the times we live in, the consumerist society we are all a part of, and the lengths people living on the margins of this society can be driven to in order to survive in it? It’s probably a bit of all these issues, but mostly it’s about people. The insistence with which the Dardennes work with similar characters, deprived people trying to survive in a post-industrial community, is clearly an attempt to understand how the people they see around them on the streets of their hometown survive and cope (the inhabitants of Seraing were the subject of many of their early documentary films). The point of departure for The Child, as the filmmakers have stated in a number of interviews, was the observation during the making of their last film The Son, of a distraught woman pushing what looked like an empty pram down the street. Using this pram as a motif, The Child takes two typically Dardenne characters, builds a story around them and the pram and pushes them as far as it can to see how they will react to the necessity of surviving in the world around them.
With a strong structure and a gripping storyline, The Child is probably the most accessible film yet by the Dardennes. Despite the apparent freeness of the camera, each scene required at least five takes and sometimes as many as sixty to achieve that natural quality. Cut down from an initial two and a half hour first cut, what remains is consequently tighter, leaner, more direct and precise in its storytelling method than anything we have previously seen in the brothers’ films, yet it loses not a single ounce of the unease and tension of that suffused the slow unfolding of events in their previous film The Son. The Child may come across as a thriller, but it’s a naturalistic, hard-edged, social realist thriller, the real-life implications of which are horrific to consider.
The Child is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, the DVD is Region 2 encoded and it is in PAL format.
You couldn’t really expect anything more from the video transfer on this DVD release. The film can occasionally look dark and murky, but this is entirely how it should appear, and it’s like that for a reason. The very tone, greyness, use of colour and grain of the The Child are all carefully balanced to convey much more than is said by the characters about their lives, and it is perfectly reproduced here in Artificial Eye’s superb transfer. There is not a flaw on the print and not a flicker of compression artefacts or any other form of digital manipulation of the image. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1.
The DVD comes with a choice of audio tracks – a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. Either of these will suffice for the minimalist and realist soundtrack without any music score, both having clarity and a tone that is appropriate and necessary for the film. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix does not demonstrate any wider use of the sound design, and in fact restricts it to practically one mono centre channel for the majority of the film.
English subtitles are optional and in a white font which is well-sized and well-placed.
The Interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (22:44) is superbly informative rather than descriptive of what the film is about. The filmmakers talk about their background and the history of their hometown of Seraing, setting the context for what happens in the film. They try to explain their working method and why they work with a regular small team, casting fresh and inexperienced young actors, speaking only briefly on the genesis of the film and its themes. A Biography and Filmography is included for the filmmakers, as well as Trailers for all their films available on DVD - The Child (1:16), Rosetta (1:12), La Promesse (1:12) and The Son (1:28).
From a simple description of the plot, setting and characters of The Child, it doesn’t seem like the Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have progressed much further beyond the subject matter of La Promesse. While it is difficult to point out exactly what has changed in the intervening years and subsequent films, there has nevertheless been a clear evolution in their techniques, a consolidation and refinement of them, all the time attempting to get closer to an understanding of their characters, and consequently the world around them. In comparison to the openness and the not always clear motivations and actions of the characters in their previous films, some might find The Child too accessible, too structured, more conventional and almost redemptive in its ending, but it seems to me to be just evidence of the filmmakers having a better understanding of the actions of their characters and the humanity that lies within them. The Child is perhaps the strongest film yet from the Dardenne Bros and more than deserving of earning them their second Palme d’Or at Cannes. As they have done with the filmmakers’ previous releases, Artificial Eye present the film superbly on DVD, with a perfect transfer and informative extra features.