The first time we see Bruno holding his newborn son in L'Enfant is just before he sells him. Bruno is babysitting for his girlfriend, Sonia, who's waiting in a queue. But as a thief by trade, he knows selling the baby on the black market will score cash and avoid hassles. So he makes the arrangements, sets down the bundle in the dim cool of a vacant apartment, and goes to wait in the next room until the boy is snatched up and replaced with a stack of paper bills.
Little happens on screen: For minutes, it seems, Bruno stands waiting against some despairing wallpaper, half in deep shadow, half-lit through an unseen window by the wan eastern Belgian sun. Filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne film the young actor Jérémie Renier in their characteristic unvarnished style, in one long take with a motionless camera. But if the approach is straightforward, it's not dispassionate. By now we know something of who Bruno is. The drama, as he breathes hard ... is he conscience-stricken, or just worried about the transaction? ... lies in who he might become.
A decade ago, as a kid, Renier starred in the Dardenne brothers' powerful La Promesse. There he played youth betrayed, caught between filial loyalty and doing the right thing. In L'Enfant, Renier, with his slept-in face and hair, is amorality personified, living by beggary, sponging, and serving as a youthful Fagin to even younger thieves. Bruno is chivalrous enough to sublet Sonia's apartment while she's in the hospital having their child, a fact she discovers when she tries to come home, baby in arms.
The infant, named Jimmy, is only one possible title character. The other, of course, is Bruno, who either never learned right from wrong or decided nobody else cared about the difference any more than he does. His life is as moment-to-moment as the cell-phone calls that guide his existence ... until he's relieved of his phone halfway through the film. Only Sonia's spasm of anger at his act of unfathomable faithlessness begins to crack open his heart, revealing a glimmer of conscience.
"Steal for us instead of yourself," say the black-market thugs who beat Bruno for the money they lost when he bought Jimmy back. In the hard-edged but hopeful L'Enfant, the focus is on the characters. But for the Dardennes, shooting in the gritty, nondescript urban spaces of a city called Seraing, social realities always loom. Note that while the film condenses a few days of action to 100 screen minutes, each exchange of money ... the counting of bills, the hiding of coin ... takes place in real time. In French, with subtitles.