The Dardenne brothers now have that whole postindustrial European prole-artistry thing down to a formula. Their 1996 La Promesse? Genius, stunning, a knockout. 1999's Rosetta? Powerful, wrenching, with another devastating final scene. And The Son (2002)? Hmmm, seems kinda familiar, but that ending sure stays with you. Now we have L'Enfant (The Child), and it's constructed out of tedium and tears. Anyone willing to endure this Belgian belch of rust-belt realism will leave the theater misty-eyed and staggered by the final shot. If you haven't seen the Dardennes' prior work, it may actually seem fresh and amazing.
But it's not. With their background in socially conscious, lapsed-Catholic documentary moralizing, spiritual redemption has become just another product extruded from the Dardenne factory mold. L'Enfant is this year's model, a Cannes prizewinner, a congratulatory pat on the flaccid Continental back where French citizens are successfully protesting for the right to lifetime employment, work without effort, guaranteed benefits, and institutionalized idleness.
Young layabouts Sonia (Déborah François) and Bruno (Jérémie Renier) thoughtlessly produce a baby boy. Bruno, a petty thief, realizes he can sell the newborn for 5,000 euros (about $6,000), and does so without any more thought than procreation entailed, possibly less. Sonia is shocked. Bruno is shocked she feels that way, and he spends the rest of the picture trying, gradually, to atone for his misdeed. The drama here is not the recovery of the infant; and he's never dropped or mistreated, no matter how many times Sonia and Bruno toss him back and forth to light a cigarette or kiss. The Dardennes aren't out to appall, unlike Danny Boyle and the heroin-hallucination baby on the ceiling in Trainspotting.
Instead, calmly and cogently, they chart Bruno's progress toward something that might be called grace. Renier doesn't make a particularly handsome or compelling hero, but the Dardennes have stuck with him since La Promesse, and he returns the favor by grinding the wheels of his conscience—moral scruples clashing like missed gears. The film is profoundly dull to watch; the Dardennes render this world in 100 shades of drab. Sit through it, though, and you'll be blinded by a final stab of light.