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Issue Date:  April 14, 2006

Deadbeats in action

'L'Enfant' and 'Don't Come Knocking' make challenging viewing


L’Enfant (“The Child”) is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year: tough-minded, carefully observed and deeply ethical. Made by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“Rosetta”), it offers a close look at the depressed lives of lower-class young people in the small industrial town of Seraing.

At the start, Sonia (Déborah François), a pretty young mother, is anxious to show off her newborn son, Jimmy, to the father, Bruno (Jérémie Renier). She is delighted with the child, but Bruno hardly notices the baby. A handsome petty thief who believes that “only fools work,” he’s proud of his new hat and windbreaker, bought with the money he got by subleasing Sonia’s apartment while she was in the hospital. To repay her, he gives her a matching jacket and a baby carriage.

The couple frolic together like the children they are, and Sonia is so pleased with her baby that she hardly complains about sleeping in a shelter for the homeless.

Everything moves quickly in a Dardenne film; critics have pointed out parallels with the work of Robert Bresson. Perhaps the most obvious is that the brothers do not disrupt the flow of reality with the artificiality of background music. Alain Marcoen’s camera seems almost attached to Bruno’s back as he waits to cross a dangerous main street as traffic continues to stream past. Unfortunately, someone tells Bruno that people will pay well for healthy babies, and without consulting Sonia he rushes to sell his son to ruthless black-market operators. Returning with an empty stroller, he is startled to see her become paralyzed by shock.

Despite his heinous thoughtlessness, Bruno does care about Sonia; he immediately goes back to retrieve the baby. The gangsters beat him up and warn him that he remains in debt for the amount they might have sold the child for. Shaken but still confident that he can raise money illegally, Bruno teams up with a young collaborator, employing a scooter to execute a purse-snatching in which everything goes wrong. In their endless attempt to escape, the two are forced into the cold depths of the river, and Bruno’s young partner is ultimately grabbed by the police.

The Dardennes are implacable. Causes are always followed by effects. They don’t paste on happy endings; they simply want to know if someone like Bruno is capable of taking on responsibility. Fortunately, his growth begins when he sees his half-frozen assistant hysterically paralyzed. For once, he blames himself and in a moving finale that will make some think of Bresson’s “Pickpocket” is rewarded with the gift of tears.

Wim Wenders, the distinguished director who grew up being Americanized by movies in post-World War II Germany, is reunited with playwright Sam Shepard in Don’t Come Knocking. Twenty years earlier in “Paris, Texas” (1984), Mr. Shepard was merely the screenwriter; in the new film he plays Howard Spence, an aging cowboy star who wonders where his life has gone after endless nights of boozing, drug-taking and womanizing. Spence impulsively walks off the Utah set of his new film and goes to Elko, Nev., to visit his mother (Eva Marie Saint), whom he hasn’t seen in 30 years.

Spence doesn’t eat the breakfast she makes for him and is startled to learn that a woman in Butte, Mont., had called 20 years ago to say she had given birth to his son. “Don’t Come Knocking” will inevitably remind viewers of last year’s “Broken Flowers,” but it lacks the downbeat humor of Bill Murray. In Butte, Spence quickly finds Doreen (Jessica Lange), his former lover, now owner of a local bar, and observes his embittered son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), who sings at the bar and wants nothing to do with his father. Sky (Sarah Polley), an attractive, upbeat young woman who carries an urn containing the ashes of her mother, seems an imposition on the plot. She suggests that she’s Spence’s daughter by a different mother, but her efforts to reconcile father and son only lead the latter to throw all his possessions, even a beat-up couch, out the window.

Such capricious plotting leaves the cowboy star lying for hours outside, giving photographer Franz Lustig the opportunity to take gorgeous shots of the night sky. In the morning, Sutter (Tim Roth), the taciturn insurance agent who had been assigned to drag Spence back to the movie set, is easily able to handcuff him. This development somewhat softens Earl’s attitude to his father, and Spence is able to make the grand gesture of giving his son the car he has been driving all over the West.

Mr. Wenders’ storytelling is too elliptical, however, to offer either reconciliation or resolution. Mr. Lustig’s panoramas do provide an ironic comment on Spence’s current cowboy movie, “Phantom of the West,” with Mr. Shepard’s craggy face a symbol of ravaged heroism. Most viewers, however, are apt to grow impatient and not take the trouble to fill in the narrative dots.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular film critic. His e-mail is

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2006

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