Amid brutal competition from A History of Violence, Caché (Hidden), and Last Days, the top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival went to L'Enfant (The Child), a Belgian drama about a 20-year-old hustler who sells his infant son like a bag of weed. The makers of this provocative movie, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, have referred to it as a "love story," and so it is. It's also unmistakably a film by the Dardenne brothers, who are peerless in their desire to use cinema as a tool of social agitation -- maybe because they're veterans of nonfiction. Since the '70s, they've made dozens of documentaries that are notable not only for their subjects -- anti-Nazi resistance, underground journalism, the Belgian labor strike of 1960 -- but for the fact that they've been screened mostly at union meetings. Focused on the tiniest details of working-class struggle and shot like vérité docs with shaky cameras and natural light, the Dardennes' four fiction films have often been regarded as "Marxist" -- and not always regarded favorably.
L'Enfant's lanky, scruffy blond protagonist is almost always on the go, even if his frantic progress on the mean streets of Seraing, Belgium, scarcely measures more than the distance from hand to mouth. As the film opens, we discover that Bruno (Jérémie Renier), a panhandler and petty thief, has traded his apartment for a hat and a jacket, leaving his girlfriend, Sonia (Déborah François), fresh out of the maternity ward, clutching their wailing newborn and needing shelter. Bruno isn't cruel, just horribly clueless. Early on, the Dardennes' camera momentarily catches this young family in a sweet three-way embrace, and spendthrift Dad even springs for a stroller at one point, but we sense that the grown enfant is being wheeled in some other direction. "Only fuckers work," Bruno says to Sonia when she suggests that he could get a job as a handyman.
In this primal environment, Bruno's cell phone functions as a kind of umbilical cord, keeping him tied to his survivalist habit; from out of nowhere, he makes a deal by phone to sell nine-day-old Jimmy on the black market for a wad of Euros; then he appears genuinely surprised when Sonia doesn't buy his argument that they can simply make another baby to replace the one he's just hocked. Obviously, Bruno doesn't have much sense of the rules of family, but his hard-knock life -- spent, we might suppose, in the absence of family -- has given him a certain logical respect for the inertia-based laws of cash flow and commodities exchange. As Bruno scrambles to recover the baby (and Sonia's love), enlisting another poor kid in a purse-snatching scheme gone awry, the Dardennes push our sympathies into unexpected, even undesired territory. Helplessness is relative in this family drama. But what does it mean for us to see a malnourished 20-year-old as an "at-risk baby"? At what point should age make one ineligible for public support?
L'Enfant is hardly the only recent drama to use absentee fatherhood as a way of exploring larger questions of guilt and responsibility. But its level of compassion might be matched only by the Dardennes' other masterfully ethical melodramas. Tough as it is, L'Enfant nudges both its protagonist and its audience toward unlikely affection; the film commands our care, by practicing what it preaches. No wonder the brothers call it a love story.