Mother and child disunion

In 'L'Enfant,' a member of Belgium's underclass sells his girlfriend's baby for cash.

Twenty-year-old Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Sonia (Deborah François), are vagabonds living in an eastern Belgian steel town in "L'Enfant" ("The Child"), the latest glum odyssey from the directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Sonia has just given birth to a son, Jimmy. Bruno, who lives off Sonia's unemployment benefits and his petty theft, may or may not be the biological father.

On the surface at least, these two appear to love each other. Sonia is enraptured by her baby and wheels him in his carriage as if he were the crown prince. Bruno seems to dote on him, too - except he seems to be doing it only for Sonia's benefit. When he gets wind of a black market for babies, he sells Jimmy without blinking an eye. After all, he figures, he needs the money, and it's probably not his kid anyway.

Sonia, hearing the news, collapses and is rushed to the hospital. Bruno's halfhearted attempts to get the baby back land him in even hotter water with the criminal underworld and the police. And all the time, it's never clear that he thinks he did anything terribly wrong.

As in "The Son (Le Fils)," the Dardennes' most famous previous film, "L'Enfant," which won the Palme D'Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, has an almost documentarylike approach to character. It employs - very loosely and very often - looming hand-held close-ups of the actors. The in-your-face stylistics can get wearying after a while because we don't seem to discover anything new or fresh in the faces.

Bruno is an engaging blank throughout, and that limits his interest. (He, and not Jimmy, is the true infant of the title.) The Dardennes are content to present him as a cipher, which may be preferable to the usual Psych 101 approach in which everything is spelled out for us. But with this much misery going on, the caught-on-the-fly characterization has its distinct drawbacks. It's the difference between watching an in-depth crime drama and watching an episode of "Cops."

All is not lost, however, since the film is as much about Bruno's effect on others as it is about him. François gives a marvelously expressive performance as Sonia. The scene where it dawns on her what Bruno has done with her child is agonizing. This is a nightmare perpetrated by the person she feels closest to. Sonia may seem happy-go-lucky at the start, but grief steels her. It makes her grow up very fast. She becomes a kind of heroine in the course of the film, which ultimately owes its stature to her presence. Grade: B+ (In French with English subtitles.)

Rated R for brief language.

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