The Child (12A)

Written and Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Screening at FACT from 21st-27th April 2006

Reviewed by Adam Ford

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film like The Child before. I can’t work out who it’s supposed to appeal to. Is it supposed to be entertainment? Surely no one with any compassion would want to play voyeur with such disgusting deprivation. So is it a cry for help on behalf of the poor and dispossessed then? No, because it fails to provide any context and presents its characters as amoral animals. But some people must like this kind of thing, because it won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes festival last year.

Jérémie Renier and Deborah Francois play Bruno and Sonia, a young Belgian couple with a newborn baby. Living on their wits, they exist on whatever they can find or steal. He declares that “work is for fuckers”, yet his poverty keeps him on mental and physical duty 24/7, whether it is scrabbling for food, searching the rubbish tips or doing a Fagin from Oliver Twist with his pre-adolescent accomplice Steve (Jérémie Segard). Bruno seems to have no concept of love or loyalty, something he demonstrates when selling his child for a fistful of euros. Sonia is understandably distraught, which confuses Bruno, because he thought "we could always make another one".

If there is anything good about The Child, it’s the fact that it is unflinching in showing the reality of life on the extreme margins of society. It’s quite brave really, since this is surely commercial suicide. And it doesn’t give us any patronisingly easy answers. But who wants to pay £5 and leave feeling hopeless, when the people in the film would literally do anything for that fiver?

The Dardenne brothers present Bruno (and to a lesser extent Sonia) as objects of fear rather than empathy and compassion. But in the real world people aren’t born bad, they have badness thrust upon them. If Bruno is a scary freak, he is a freak of nurture. It is that lack of a back story that makes The Child so profoundly depressing. If we have no idea what has gone wrong, how can we hope to make things better? Will there be another film like this in fifty years time? I definitely hope there won't be.

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