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.

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September 4, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 3

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THE SON (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium)

“Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.”
— St. Francis of Assisi

THE SON is a European art movie that almost nobody saw (it never played commercially in Washington; I saw it twice at festivals) and it’s still not on video unless your player can read European-coded discs or tapes. This joker compared it to Robert Bresson; when I saw it a second time, with a professor at Howard University, she thought it excruciatingly slow and boring (though she warmed up to it once we started discussing it); the other day, I got a note from a film-buff pal who wondered to me “I’ve watched the first 20 minutes or so of this and I’ve yet to see anything of interest … what should I be looking for?” So I well realize that THE SON, much as I love it, is not a crowd-pleaser.

Still, I can’t get the suspicion out of the back of mind that THE SON could be a crackerjack success among the people at St. Blogs (Barbara? Father Sibley? Mark? Others?) if more people could see it and get the word out on it, because this little Belgian masterpiece speaks to the workings of God’s grace more than any other film I saw last year. In addition, it centers around divine grace and one of Christ’s admonitions to virtue more thoroughly than any film I can think of where the word “God” never appears, the central character never goes to church, and priests or religious figures are absent. Or rather, THE SON preaches grace without ever using words. Oh, there are indications that we’re supposed to understand the film allegorically and theologically all right, the film’s title and the fact that the central character, Olivier, is a carpenter. And he is faced with a moral dilemma of Christ-like proportions. But even if God is present everywhere in the film, He is visible nowhere.

Brother writer-directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne spend the first 25 or 30 minutes of the film just following a mousy, pasty-faced character actor named Olivier Gourmet (who won a deserved best-actor prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival) as his character goes about his job teaching carpentry to teenage boys at what looks like some sort of apprentice program. We learn the nuts-and-bolts of a profession in THE SON like in few films I recall. For a long time, in fact, the film hardly seems to be more than IF I WERE A CARPENTER and the Dardennes show Olivier’s taciturn, stern, fatherly manner with his charges — a perfectionist teaching and exuding a work ethic and job skills.

And he goes on living alone. And merely existing. And looking. At something. Or someone. For some reason.

thesonavuncular.jpgWhen I say “following Olivier,” I mean that about as literally as one can. The Dardennes use the same close-up-heavy, seemingly hand-held style as they did in ROSETTA — the camera is constantly moving and seemingly permanently perched about a foot behind Gourmet’s head, creating a kind of intimate claustrophobia for us within Olivier’s skin. Some wags complained that the Cannes jury should have give the prize to the back of Gourmet’s neck or his earlobes, and other sane (but wrongheaded) people found the style offputting and/or said it wrecked the film. But I found the camerawork a breathtaking virtuoso act and, although the plot doesn’t obviously kick in until a big revelation at about the 30-minute mark, the Dardennes hide more story-exposition than you’d ever guess until after THE SON is over (the Dardennes’ focus-puller does more story-telling than most Hollywoof scriptwriters). We get a general sense that Olivier is haunted by something he’s been able to put in the past. But he has that … inexplicable interest in one of his students? I usually cannot abide films that go nowhere for long periods, but right when I mentally said to myself “OK, I think they’ve milked this for all it’s worth, something needs to happen soon” — something did. And then I said “thanks dardennebuds.” That plot point constitutes a major spoiler for one of the great pleasures of THE SON (for me at any rate) — the intimate mysteriousness of the opening half-hour. You have been warned

“Then came Peter unto him and said: ‘Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?’ Jesus saith to him: ‘I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times’.”
— Matthew 18:21-22

We find out the reason for Olivier’s interest in one of the pupils — a teenager named Francis just released from reformatory. Francis had served five years in juvenile hall for killing Olivier’s son in a car robbery gone awry. Olivier knows this; Francis does not know who his boss is. And the rest of the film concerns the VERTIGO question — what happens when Scotty/Francis finds out who Judy/Olivier is? And what is Olivier’s agenda?

One of the many reasons this film is so great and the last hour so tension-filled is that we never quite know (from the uncertain way Gourmet carries his body and his taciturnity) what Olivier is doing. Is he an ironic criminal out of Poe planning the perfect crime? Is he trying to exercise Jesus’ command to perfect forgiveness, despite its obvious impossibility and the nature of the wrong done him. Not until the very last shot of the film can we be certain. THE SON is a series of temptations put before a Christ-figure on the road to exercising perfect forgiveness, the last of which, perversely, is his own righteousness.

thesonwife.jpgMost of the time, when people “forgive” their tormentors (and I’m speaking of much more than parents of murdered children, which is at the extremities of torment), they generally say a few easy words, and then they leave the sinner at a distance and move on. But THE SON is about a man who has “forgiven” (in that easier sense) his son’s killer at the start of the movie. But then the world, as if guided by an invisible providential hand, conspires to push the limits of forgiveness … by putting the killer in his apprenticeship program, by a scene in which Olivier has to save the boy from a ladder-climbing accident, by Francis’s starting to like Olivier, treat him as a friend and finally asks him to be his guardian. Olivier’s ex-wife (their marriage broke up over the death of their son) finds out and goes batshit — “how can you do this,” she screams. “I don’t know,” he (honestly) answers.

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In the climactic scene, Olivier makes a date with Francis go out to a lumber yard alone. The drive out there makes up most of the film’s third act and it keeps tantalizing us with doubts and hints until I was thinking of the third act of IN THE BEDROOM and of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado,” with Olivier as Montresor luring a young Fortunato to his crypt for an ironic death. There’s a universe in the smallest snubs and changes in tone of voice. They stop at a pastry shop, and each gets a turnover. Olivier pays for his, leaving a surprised Francis to pay for his. No explicit explanation is offered or sought, but look at the faces. We’ve seen Olivier’s fatherly or avuncular manner with his pupils, but when your father or favorite uncle took you out somewhere, you didn’t go Dutch — and these are Belgians (couldn’t resist). It seemed like such a calculated and particularized snub that I thought it was paving the way for something more. There’s also an element of shame in Francis’ behavior throughout the drive (his evasive answers to Olivier’s asking “why were you in jail?”) and that makes his fleeing a perversely moral reaction to being made to face your wrongdoing.

Martin Luther once said: “Love God, often I hate him,” and Isaiah was terrified by seeing the face of God, and that’s sort of the dynamic here. And then, in a final perverse twist at the end, when Olivier tells him who he is, Francis flees him precisely BECAUSE the boy (quite rationally, I add, since he has seen IN THE BEDROOM) assumes he has been lured out to a murder site.

Has he? See the movie.

February 10, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment