Even if you were to watch L'Enfant (The Child) with the sound turned off and the subtitles removed, you'd quickly realize that there's no conceivable way it could have been made in America. It's not that the characters come across as stereotypically European—neither Bruno (Jérémie Renier), the young, towheaded petty thief at its center, nor Sonia (Déborah François), his moon- and whey-faced girlfriend, spends any time sipping espressos in sidewalk cafés, both of them being too preoccupied with moment-to-moment survival. Nor does the small, dingy factory town of Seraing, where Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son) invariably shoot, look all that different from, say, the crummier sections of Cleveland or Detroit. No, you can tell this has to be a foreign film because Bruno and Sofia have just had a baby together—a tiny, swaddling-clothed, plot-driving bundle of joy and avarice—and at movie's end you still barely have a clue what the critter even looks like. Not for the Dardennes the easy pathos of the gurgling reaction shot. Their infant remains a bundled abstraction, passed around from person to person as if it were one of Hitchcock's MacGuffins.
Which is entirely appropriate, because the ruthlessly pragmatic Bruno regards his son as little more than a novel form of currency. Amoral and impulsive, his hard features undercut every now and then by a winning, lopsided smile, Bruno seems to view life as an endless series of transactions, virtually without regard to their meaning. He's like a machine designed to convert money into goods and services, and vice versa; whatever he has right now, all he knows is that he needs to exchange it for something else. (Remind you of any economic systems you know?) When Sonia emerges from the hospital with their baby, who she's named Jimmy, she discovers that Bruno has sublet her apartment, using the cash to buy himself a jaunty little hat, which he displays proudly. That night, however, selling a camera he's stolen, he casually throws in his prize hat as a but-wait-there's-more element, in order to get the price he wants. Jimmy, at first, strikes him as a fine, heart-tugging means of cadging spare change from sympathetic passersby. But it doesn't take him long to figure out where the real money is.
If you've seen the Dardennes' previous films, you already know what to expect from this one: relentless naturalism, urgent handheld camerawork, moral equivocation, simple yet ferocious performances. You might not be prepared, though, for the breakneck urgency that kicks in once Bruno sells Jimmy to an underground adoption ring—and then finds that he has to retrieve him, because the news that their pride and joy is now just a fat wad of Euros ("We'll have another one," Bruno shrugs) puts Sonia right back in the hospital, where her woozy ramblings wind up being reported to the police. That's not to suggest that the Dardennes have in any way sold out or cheapened themselves, mind you. Though there's eventually something you could almost call a chase scene, most of the film's considerable tension is derived from unadorned shots of Bruno standing in empty rooms, his (and our) only source of information coming from muffled sounds offscreen: footsteps, car engines, the sound of bills being methodically counted. And even in the midst of this angst, the Dardennes never miss an opportunity for the telling, offhand detail; anybody still in doubt about who the film's titular child really is will have the question clarified when Bruno, waiting for instructions in an alley, passes the time by tramping around in muddy water and trying to see how high on an adjacent wall he can get his footprint.
Still, by the standards of austere European art films, L'Enfant is practically Terminator 2. Unlike a lot of other critical darlings—L'Enfant won the top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, an honor previously bestowed upon their Rosetta—the Dardennes, though they strenuously avoid cheap sentimentality, don't shy away from the staples of drama, including unexpected plot twists and savage emotion. (Sonia's fury after Bruno sells Jimmy is terrifying to behold, especially when a brief moment of violence acts as heartrending counterpoint to previous scenes in which we saw them playfully tussling like schoolkids.) The movie's final scene, with its deliberate nod to the Robert Bresson classic Pickpocket, is a bit disappointing, but nobody could accuse the brothers of Bresson's lofty detachment. Their achievement here is both formidable and intensely moving: Without resorting to any sort of "Eureka!" moment, they depict, in the most self-interested of hearts, the first intimation that it's possible to do wrong.