In L’Enfant, a young couple struggles to keep it together when a newborn enters the picture. Shot, as were the brothers’ previous films “Promesse” and “Rosetta” in a French city lost somewhere in the industrial past but home nonetheless to important family and social tradition, the film’s genius can easily be overlooked and mistaken for the banal and trivial detail of a realist’s take on daily life. A bicycle is ridden, stairs are climbed, a scooter takes a corner, a beer served. Or does or protagonist ride a bike, does he climb the same flight of apartment stairs, again and again, does he bank a scooter into the same street as if it’s a street he knows as well as any other he’s been confined to, a beer is served or a beer is requested and the bartender pours our customer another round…. French author of the Nouvelle Roman, Robbes-Grillet, created an art form perhaps similar to that of the Dardenne brothers. The films of Cinema Verite and Italian Neorealism were also attempts to approximate the Real while remaining within fiction. “As if” film-making.
But the Dardenne brothers have a take of their own though. It involves the affect and scene upon which the film has been made. L’Enfant was inspired by the sight of a young mother who frequently took her baby on walks near the filming of “The Son.” The film-makers and crew noticed this woman, and in particular the troubled and abrupt manner in which she pushed the baby carriage in front of her. This scene, repeated every day, took on significance with each repetition, as if the repeating of it deepened its meaning while making it more obscure at the same time. The brothers decided to turn this into a film.
And so the it is that the kinds of impressions life makes on the these sibling film makers are the kinds of expressions on which their films are constructed. Stairs are not climbed, nor does a protagonist repeatedly climb the same stairs. Rather, the climbing of stairs is repeated. The drinking of beer. The riding of scooter through streets known. The Dardenne brothers had their actors do these things over and over so that they themselves would do them as if they lived in this town, under these circumstances, in this reality. Directing their actors to be present to the context, social and material, spatial and temporal, in color and in temperature, in their own physical experience, strikes me as a masterly approach not just to film making, or to acting, but to narration also. For the actors are now able to narrate the story in gesture, their actions becoming the indicative material of the film’s narrative instead of story elements, plot points, and so on. And we from that we get an emotional reality, instead of a narrative reality, or the reality of event, action, situation. Emotional reality — that is the reality of affect, the movement of feeling, mood, the intensity, pressure, the breaking point, anticipation, the muteness and explosiveness, of human experience. I don’t know if these guys are alone in this particular technique. As a viewer I find it incredibly powerful.