Sunday, September 25, 2005

the child (dardenne bros., 2005)

"My Best Thinking Got Me Here." -- AA slogan, highlighted in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

The sub rosa mystery-suspense aspect in the Dardennes' last feature, The Son, seemed to set the stage for the directing duo to foreground thriller elements in their latest, The Child, without compromising their style or shifting their focus away from France and Belgium's most put-upon souls.

The most compelling aspect of the Dardennes' work is what they've inherited from Bresson. It's hard to parse out the differences between Bresson and the Dardennes, because their individual styles are already such that they elude explanation, but it can safely be said that they each place a premium on meticulous soundscapes, they each consider what remains offscreen as carefully as what ends up in the frame, and they have each built a cinema that treats actors as organisms rather than technicians specializing in impersonations. (For the Dardennes, as well as for Bresson, the most amazing thing about their "models" is that they exist.)

Also linking Bresson with the Dardennes is their fascination with "process." For Bresson's protagonists (Michel, Fontaine, Jeanne [hint: look at the title], and the Curé d'Ambricourt), process in their lives may be manifest itself as labor, faith, or some other elaborate task - concepts not totally dissimilar from one another, as they all require precision, diligence, and concentration. Similarly there's Balthazar, whose lot is to exist and to work, under cruelty or kindness. It can be argued (and has been) that these protagonists achieve grace through their works; another way of looking at them is to link them with Manny Farber's "termite" artists, characterized by going "always forward eating [their] own boundaries, and, likely as not, leave... nothing in [their] path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity." These protagonists choose a destination and follow the road, ever watchful of their feet, lest they trip.

Later in his career, Bresson's protagonists seemed to begin to wonder if there were any destinations to begin with, and would devote their daily lives to searching for a road - any road. Significantly, his take on Camelot occurs entirely after Arthur's crew failed to find the grail; somewhere in the cosmos there's another Bresson film that details the exhaustive search for the grail, replete with hardships, and ends when they find it, and that film is dated 1956. The real film takes place when Camelot is on the wane.

For Mouchette, Elle, Charles, and finally, with gusto, Yvon, contemplating various prospective Paths may lead them to become preoccupied with sex, crime, and varying degrees of mischief, among other things that are (especially in Le Diable probablement) picked up, toyed with, and put away - namely science, the media, faith, and the counterculture. Their eyes are not incurious, but when these roads lead nowhere but back into their own gaze, there's a feeling not just of emptiness but of having been disemboweled. For all the talk of the transcendental in relation to Bresson's cinema, if his late films had a subtitle, it might be: How They Fastidiously But Perhaps Unknowingly Avoided or Delayed Redemption.

I suppose one could say, then, that the Dardennes' protagonists don't have their eyes on any particular Man Escaped-like goal, but that they are always keenly aware of where they are and what they are doing, and that they are always taking great care in doing it.

Which, finally, is what links Igor (Jérémie Renier) to previous Dardennes protagonists. Despite the fact that he is a lying, scheming, directionless, overgrown kid, he nevertheless has a Process of his own, and he follows it, thinking only of his most immediate gains. Clearly his "best thinking" is shit - his idea of preparing for his family's future involves selling the baby, and in order to get away from a pair of violent thugs, he goes to prison (yeah, Bruno, they'll probably just forget all about you and the 4.934 EUR) - but in the end, even his unfathomably demented idea of doing the right thing lends him, through sheer determination to stick to the program, a kind of nobility.

The high point of the film in terms of drama and putting a fine point on Bruno's crisis is the masterful sequence in which Bruno and his pubescent purse-snatching accomplice hide in the freezing water in order to escape their pursuers. When Bruno rescues the boy from drowning, risking his own life in the process, it's the same Bruno who put his baby on the black market; he hasn't Changed.

Early in the film, Bruno tells the boy - they're negotiating payment for their petty scams and thefts - "I've never screwed you over." And he proves that he never will by taking the ultimate responsibility for the purse-snatching, for which the kid might've otherwise taken the fall, solo. Or it might not be that he always did right by the kid, but that, at that point in his downward spiral, he's looking for something to do that's indisputably Good, for some road that leads out of the fix he's put himself in. Any road. In the process Bruno may have learned nothing, or he may have learned that having good intentions doesn't amount to anything if you do something like sell your baby; that his opinion of himself as a "good person" amounts to shit if he has nothing to show for it.

"Faith without works is dead." -- another AA slogan

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