L'Enfant is a masterpiece, but when Entertainment Weekly declares V for Vendetta the "year's first big movie," does that mean anything? Not that a new film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne need be propped up against soulless studio escapades for its purity to spring to the fore -- with the complex, startling immediacy of La Promesse, Rosetta and The Son, the Belgian brothers' brand of soulful grit has more than earned a spot in the desecrated realm of art cinema. What other filmmakers now at work can take you so close to the characters that you can feel their breath, and still talk metaphysics? Intense physicality is their motif, acquired, as critics have been trained to point out, from two decades of TV documentaries -- recall the boy's shower after helping bury the dying immigrant in La Promesse, or Rosetta cramming herself into a cardboard hideout by the river, or the father dashing back to the bustling woodshop after eavesdropping on his new student in The Son. Their camera, close and eye-level, catches them on the fly, no varnish needed; the world around them, the muddy pebbles on the floor and the coldness of water, is no less visceral, and yet the Dardennes evoke the soul's progression with more crystalline force and less pious baby-fat than anybody nowadays. Bresson gets name-dropped often, although their characters might be closer to Arthur Penn's, instinctive loners gradually awakening to the hugeness of the world, and of the spirit.
Like their previous films, L'Enfant has the feel of observing people who've lived before the opening credits and will keep on living after the fadeout. The opener could be the middle of a scene, Sonia (Déborah François) carrying her newborn baby up a flight of stairs to find out that her flat has been subleased in her absence by the child's father, a streetwise scrapper named Bruno (Jérémie Renier). She finds him in the middle of the street, trying to score some quick cash and not that interested in the new addition to the family; drably industrial Seraing is the setting, survival is the name of the game, and, since "only fuckers work," Bruno sees no problem in living moment to moment. Barely out of their teens, the two are themselves enfants, playfully fighting over radio stations and spraying soda on each other during lunch; the son awakens Sonia's maternal instincts, although Bruno remains ignorant-innocent of the responsibilities of the situation, blithely blowing the last bit of money on a new jacket for his girlfriend on their way to city hall to sign documents recognizing little Jimmy. Taking the baby for a stroll as Sonia waits in line for an unemployment check, Bruno remembers a friend's tip about lucrative adoption rings, and trades the kid for a wad of cash. Amoral but not immoral, he's more attuned to instinctual survival than accountability, paternal or otherwise, seeing life as a series of dog-eat-dog impulses -- an extension of a degraded social system, his odious act is disturbingly free of malice.
Unable to see why Sonia would faint upon his return with an empty pram, Bruno scrambles to get the child back, but the damage has bee done -- the law is on his trail, sinister life-merchants demand payback, and she refuses to see him again. Out in the cold, he must come to terms with the consequences of an action that to him had been hardly different from selling a hat, with Sonia's anger jolting this selfish hustler into a newfound awareness of how people can be connected or ruptured by a decision. The Dardennes' characters arrive at such moments of decisive clarity only after moral responsibility is recognized and assumed, like the boy in La Promesse telling the truth to the widow of the illegal African worker. It's no accident that Renier played both the boy and Bruno here, proving a continuation of the directors' bracing vision and a view of arrested adolescence to be painfully, necessarily shattered. Olivier Gourmet, who was Renier's father in the earlier film, appears briefly as a police inspector, maybe another Dostoyevsky-Bresson nod to go with the inescapable Pickpocket comparisons at the end; speaking of metaphors, the ominously dank, empty buildings where Bruno conducts his unspeakable exchange suggest subterranean descents where deals are made with unseen forces. No phony holiness for the Dardennes -- L'Enfant remains above all a study of the spiritual made physical, with a motorcycle chase culminating on a grueling baptism and the boy reaching adulthood, and transcendence, under the gaze of his beloved. The Dardennes matter.
The move from L'Enfant to Brick is an absolute, and fascinating, one -- from naturalism to stylization, from redemption to nihilism, from characters hanging on to their adolescence to characters skipping over theirs. An unfair comparison, perhaps, since Rian Johnson's Sundance favorite has none of the social or spiritual resonance of the Dardennes' work, but it boasts comparable purity in its vision, arguably more obsessively so: film noir intrigue transplanted, with mood and patois intact, to a modern-day high school. Hammett via John Hughes? A sweet deal, also an invitation for facetiousness, yet by the time Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the teen Bogart here, demands "the ape blows or I clam," the dangers of a Lucky Number Slevin replay had dissipated -- Johnson's world is a blessedly smirk-free one, mildly Lynchian, like a pretty good episode of Twin Peaks. Indeed, it kicks off with its own Laura Palmer, Emile de Lavin's corpse by a sewer duct and Gordon-Levitt crouching next to her, the colors drained and oddly ethereal, a death rattle for a score. "Two days previous": he receives a choked-up call from de Lavin, his ex-girlfriend, now in deep shit with crime, drugs and the upper-crust crowd she's been hanging out with. Murder, an eerie zoom into a pitch-black tunnel, and time for the junior shamus to "break some deserving teeth"; all paths leads to the local crime lord, The Pin, who's first a match struck in the dark until materializing as a club-footed Lukas Haas.
Oh those darn kids. The lean, mean drama is staged in locker rooms, football fields, and other campus locales, with the pubescent gumshoe poking for the truth in dark corners, packing enough of a punch to fall a quarterback but mostly getting pummeled for his trouble. Noah Fleiss' deadly musclehead does most of the pummeling, just one of the members of Johnson's wacky gallery, which also includes Matt O'Leary's whiz-kid ("the Brain"), Meagan Good's insinuatingly devious drama-queen ("Still picking your teeth with freshmen," is Gordon-Levitt's hiya), and Nora Zehetner's amalgam of Claire Trevor femme fatales. Suburban homes hide underground rendezvous, blocks of heroine are trafficked, and trenches are dug for the simmering gang war -- where are the adults? Haas' mother serves cookies and juice, hilariously, and Richard Roundtree provides the closest thing to the law as the school vice-principal, his clashes with the hero spiked with low-angled close-ups lifted straight out of The Maltese Falcon. (Haas, meanwhile, is "supposed to be old... like, 26.") Hierarchy in society starts early, though Brick never pushes the links between teenage malaise and hardboiled genre tropes beyond beguiling mimicry, so that none of the moral inquiries from the director's '40s models carries over. Still, the movie's rigorous dark-lined elegance leaves a punchy aftertaste. Funny, I guess in high school I was much too busy getting my ass kicked by jocks to notice the similarities to The Big Sleep, but there you have it.
Reviewed April 20, 2006.