Rightwing Film Geek

A planned, wanted child

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THE CHILD (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium, 2006, 10)

I made in one of the comboxes below the admittedly counterintuitive point that contraception causes abortion (the contrary relationship is taken as an uncontroversial fact among the Rutting Animals Death Cult). Basically, like any act, contraception presupposes a will willing to engage in it. In other words, it creates the contraceptive mentality, which teaches people that they can and should have sex as a form of recreation untied to marriage and reproduction. The uniting of bodies untied from the uniting of souls. Thus is created “the need for abortion” and the very category “unplanned pregnancy.” Griswold came before Roe, not after, and historically, every country that has accepted contraception as morally indifferent has gone on to do the same for abortion. Every one (even healthy Catholic cultures like Poland and Ireland). And since my problem is one of soulcraft, I am unimpressed by next-state-over or same-time-next-year social science studies. Sure, given the contraceptive mentality and modern sexual morality … higher rates of contraception use will produce fewer abortions. But the “givens” are the problems.

Now, what does that little excursion into Catholic morality have to do with THE CHILD, a small obscure Belgian art film which I think the best movie of the year so far (so, you HAVE to see it, Donna)? It’s not as though I have any reason to think it would win the agreement of the Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, who are among the world’s greatest filmmakers but from all appearances seem like secularized Catholic eurolefties (more on that below).

THE CHILD is now out on home video, so you can now see it even if you don’t live in one of the few US cities that saw the 2005 Palme D’Or winner and thus one of the most-important films in the world for that year (grrr). And hopefully you can see why, though home video hurts THE CHILD more than I might have thought. Like with their last film THE SON (a mere #3 on My Ten best list for that year), this film is spare and has few plot points, at least at the beginning, where the “plot” is mostly contained in minute details of behavior and gesture. Tread carefully.

The austere style of THE CHILD is the familiar Dardennes style. The seemingly hand-held camera constantly follows the protagonists Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and Sonia (Deborah Francois) as they rush through life heedlessly, like young lovers. There is no music score, rather a noisy-but-incredibly-precise natural sound mix — cars on the street, honking horns, passing voices, footsteps, even money being counted. It all produces the brothers’ usual mix of intimacy, immediacy, and (this last a little less so than THE SON) claustrophobia. It’s a mannered style, but it creates an intense, urgent realism — following two people you know. The sky seems constantly overcast, only natural light is used, and the outdoor sound mix emphasizes the wind, so THE CHILD always feels cold. I mean “cold” literally, not in the sense of “emotionally frigid.” You know you’re in the hands of geniuses when you remember what the weather was like in a movie and you felt that weather.

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Unlike the Dardennes’ three previous films, THE CHILD’s opening shot does not introduce us to the main protagonist. Instead, Les Freres Dardennes introduce us to Sonia, carrying Jimmy up an apartment block’s stairs — she’s apparently just out of the hospital. And she finds out that Bruno has sublet the apartment. He needs the money. For a hat. Bruno is a petty criminal who uses the somewhat-older neighborhood children to commit purse grabs, fence goods — whatever he can do to make money. Other than get a job. “Only fuckers work,” he says. And money goes through his fingers like water. When Sonia shows him their baby, he is hardly interested. When she first sees him, she has to call him several times to get his attention. He takes the baby Jimmy in his arms, but look (like in the still attached to this paragraph) where his eyes are pointing — never on his son, whom he holds like one of those baby-sized wrapped salamis, but usually on the latest scam, or playing lookout. Sonia has to remind him to kiss Jimmy goodnight — we’re talking the first day he’s seen his son, now. But in the scenes in the opening act with Bruno and Sonia together, they act like frisky puppies, wike two widdle kids in wuv. Like I noted with THE SON, it is amazing on repeat viewing how much the Dardennes tell you without seeming to tell you. All sorts of motifs are carefully set up — a jacket, a motorcycle ride, a pram, casually tossing away a will from a lockbox, then the lockbox once it’s empty.

Now the SPOILERS come …

But again, like with THE SON, at exactly the moment when the world has been established, the major plot point in THE CHILD happens. Bruno sells Jimmy to a black-market adoption agency. For a lot of money. And for some inexplicable reason, Sonia faints. “We can have another,” he assures her.

Then things get really hairy.

I can’t top Mike D’Angelo’s “at [this] point breathing becomes a luxury” line. That’s because THE CHILD grabs you like an expert wrestler’s choke hold and is about as likely to let you go. The scene of Bruno handing over Jimmy makes as eloquent a case for aesthetic minimalism as I’ve ever seen — the buyers are never seen except in offscreen sounds; the building is deliberately stripped bare; the only image we see in most of the shots is Bruno’s face — nervous, but more from impatience and fear than guilt. The closing hour of this movie is like a nightmare of making the worst mistake you ever made and then running around trying to right that wrong. Bruno is able to get Jimmy back, but now he’s in debt to the baby-smugglers. Sonia has told the cops, so he has to invent a story for them. And try to get back in Sonia’s good graces. While setting up some new crimes. The Dardennes and Renier have done such a great job of creating their world that we actually root for this thoughtless but-now-desperate cretin to get things straightened out. It all comes together in a cops-and-robbers chase scene that puts every Hollywood multimillion superproduction to shame in terms of sheer heart-in-the-throat urgency, and where the decisive protagonist turns out to be the temperature of the water (remember how I noted how “cold” THE CHILD felt? That was deliberate.)

What does all this have to do with contraception? On the surface, nothing at all. The c-word never comes up, any more than “God” does in THE SON. But consider the very simple fact of the film’s central act — selling a baby. Why does Bruno do it? From his perspective, why not? That is one what one does with things, after all — trade them in for cash or a commodity you’d rather have at that moment. I’m not alone in noting that the child is nothing more than a commodity for Bruno, and so he sells it more from diffidence than flambuoyant Snidely Whiplash “Evil.”

From Scott Foundas in Variety:

in the world of “The Child,” everything, even a human being, is potentially salable merchandise.

From Manohla Dargis in the New York Times:

For Bruno, Jimmy has no meaning beyond what he brings on the market.

From Mike D’Angelo in Las Vegas Weekly:

the ruthlessly pragmatic Bruno regards his son as little more than a novel form of currency.

Many others have noted that point — it is not difficult to get. But why is Jimmy a commodity to Bruno? Everything else is a commodity to him, sure, but commodity exchange is older than civilization and not a feature unique to capitalism or euro-socialism. And most people throughout history generally haven’t seen their children as commodities. I’d suggest that Bruno’s final reduction of even human life and the union that produces it to commodity terms is simply the logical end of combining consumerism and sex as just two forms of pleasure-seeking.

The Dardennes are post-Marxists. Though he isn’t well off, Bruno has no class-consciousness and does not reject consumer capitalism. He wants it, and on his own terms — hence his renting an expensive convertible for the day to tool around with Sonia after carefully wedging Jimmy’s child seat into the back (there’s metaphor packed in there). Similarly, Bruno views life not as something sacred and greater than our wills (hence his diffidence toward Sonia and Jimmy), but as one more experience at the same level as any other and thus only explicable and value-able in rationalistic (i.e., commodity) terms. Probably learned from the 60s Generation that we should live for today and don’t worry ’bout tomorrow (“what’s the point of holding onto money?” he says). When I saw THE CHILD for the second time, it was with a friend who had just had his first daughter, and I joked with Mark “so … this makes you wanna sell Fatima.”

In the world of today, parenthood (and thus sex) is no longer a calling, with the religious connotation of that term, but a self-conscious “choice” that, with the language of “lifestyle” and the notion of “planning” parenthood, which is the logic of rationalistic consumer capitalism (“choosy moms choose Jif” and all of that). When a child is a “choice,” then children logically will be treated as the consumer goods that we also choose. When a consumer good is defective, you get rid of it. When you don’t want a consumer good, and act against it, attempts to make you “buy” it are a threat (the high-pressure salesman, say). Value is money. And so when you can trade a good in for more money than it’s worth to you, you’d be a fool not to do it. Hell, “we can have another.”

Very simply, what is missing until the very end and the coda, is love, a true communion of persons (Father Martin Fox explains what this has to do with contraception) — the kind that can bring new life. Bruno can hardly be said to love either Sonia or Jimmy. The only time he says he does is during Sonia’s rage in the second act, when he’s pleading with her to let him back into her apartment. Sonia correctly tells him that “I love you” is just a plea (and in fact it immediately does become a plea that he’s hungry and broke). For Bruno, “love” becomes an action at a very particular later moment which doesn’t actually involve either Sonia or Jimmy — when he dies to self by hampering his chance to get away for the sake of another son, a pre-teen who steals for him. And then, when he gives himself up to the cops. Now, expiation and calvary can begin. As U2 put it “if you wanna kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel.” All of which is why the coda, of Sonia visiting Bruno in jail and a tearful and partial reconciliation, is not a mistake. Like an organist keeping his foot on the pedal, the Dardennes aren’t playing a “tacked-on” new note at all, just extending the last note for one more bar.

This is also the logic of the Dardennes’ other movies — all four of their fiction features widely seen outside Belgium are about people who in the last scene learn to love someone outside themselves (I am somewhat indebted to Father Bryce Sibley for this point apropos of THE SON and LA PROMESSE). In THE SON, it’s coming to forgive a tormentor. In LA PROMESSE, it’s expanding one’s circle of love beyond family to community. In ROSETTA, the look she gives is her first abandonment of total self-reliance. In THE CHILD … well, that’s what the rest of this bloviating has been about. Father Sibley asked me what I knew about the Dardennes’ religious background. “None, as far as I know,” I told him at the time. But here is something very suggestive from an interview the brothers gave Dennis Lim for the Village Voice:

Q: Your films are often parsed as spiritual allegories. Were you raised Christian?
JPD: Yes, a strong Catholic upbringing, until we were in our teens and rejected what our father had imposed on us. But despite the coercive, puritanical elements of religion, our education taught us to acknowledge other people as human beings. We were forbidden to watch TV or movies, though—our father thought they were the devil incarnate.

Jean-Pierre says they’ve fallen away, and I have no reason to disbelieve him per se. But as has been noted with such Anglo-American film-makers as Hitchcock, Capra and DePalma, the Catholic “AfterImage” remains in the Dardennes’ imaginations. One might expect the fallen-away brothers to be repulsed (if they understand English and ever read this) that someone like me loves their movies so much and sees them through the lens I do. But somehow, I think the afterimage in their work is so strong that they might be tickled at having it pointed out to them.

September 4, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

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