starring Jérémie Renier, Déborah François, Jérémie Segard, Fabrizio Rongione
written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON
directed by Jeff Feuerzeig
by Walter Chaw I believe the title is meant to indicate the arrested protagonist more than it is the baby he tries to sell on the black market, thus The Child (L'Enfant)--another of Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's mild, allegorical subversions of Robert Bresson and incrementally more violent subversions of the French New Wave--takes on Pickpocket via Breathless. In so doing, it conjures up this odd chimera of a stylistically backward-looking, formalist deconstruction, the first film of the Brothers (after La Promesse, Rosetta, and The Son) to feel this much like a knowing satire, to come so perilously close to being smug and post-modern that its style begins to become confused with its message. It could be a product of overfamiliarity with a fine and distinct sensibility (the last thing this kind of innovation can afford is to be outrun and second-guessed), or it could be that the Brothers are getting either bored of their shtick or fond of their reputation.
In any case, it's just a long way around to saying that L'Enfant is of course daring, technically impeccable, and aggressively humanist in its depiction of grimy mendacity, offering the faint possibility of grace to distract from the endless drudgery of the day-to-day. But it's a tougher sell this time for a number of reasons, not the least of which the interesting dilemma offered by a cad charismatic enough to give Milton's Old Scratch a run in the charm race. You do wonder if it's possible to cast Christian allegories with humanist cants any other way.
Bruno (Jérémie Renier) is a beautiful, towheaded Fagin, managing his street hoods in a leather jacket and Jean-Paul Belmondo's cap with the same casual equanimity with which he wrangles the sale of the infant son he's sired with girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François). He hasn't visited her in the hospital, but she still loves him in the way that coltish youngsters do in films like this, and they bicker and wrestle and fuck while the child is treated as an afterthought in the back of only our minds. (Sonia goes so far as to profess that her labour didn't hurt that much in just one example of the film's dearth of subtlety.) There's tension fabricated in the way the Dardennes put their camera off the shoulder of their actors--something mined with claustrophobic efficiency in the intensely graceful The Son that now plays a little like the indie equivalent of bullet-time for its self-consciousness. What still works is the defeat of the point-of-view shot: they show us the characters reacting to something they've seen for a beat or more before the subject of their gaze happens into frame. Though it's a device that forces a closer identification while simultaneously limiting audience omniscience to fairly interesting effect, none of it strikes me as the "documentary realism" that many have ascribed to the Dardennes as much as extraordinarily mannered and increasingly distracting, no matter its lingering power. The Dardennes seem to be moving toward making films that are intellectually interesting but tied to a moral/emotional rail.
As Bruno sells, then tries to retrieve, the kid before the fuzz toss him in the slammer, the Dardennes furiously jam righteous poultry into their allegorical straw man at the expense of every other character in the thing with more complicated, more interesting, less predestined paths to redemption. (There's a reason Oliver Twist isn't about Fagin, after all.) L'Enfant proceeds along a straight line, lacking the revitalizing, cine-religious joy of Breathless and the revelatory repetition automation of Bresson, too, leaving the picture composed of half-measures, drab exteriors, and clay effigies. Bruno looks like a person, but he acts like an idea.
The same could be said of "outsider" musician Daniel Johnston, whose troubled life and mental illness were parlayed into cult fame after a piece on the Austin music scene ran on MTV in 1985 and catapulted him (after a fashion) to the underground limelight. Beloved by alterna-saints and legends like Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth, and Half Japanese, he eventually landed himself a record deal with Atlantic that produced some lovely, even extraordinary, odes to sadness and loneliness. It's a sticky wicket, this Johnston thing for me, because my complete inability to separate Johnston's music from his chronic madness makes me wonder if I like his music because it's brilliant or because it's the product of a fascinatingly broken fountain.
In any case, it's too loaded a question for Jeff Feuerzeig's The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which does not, in itself, devalue the worth of the documentary, yet the lack of focus and the unabashed hagiographic intent does colour its ultimate value for me as anything but a shrine. Allying himself with the camera-philic Friedman clan of Capturing the Friedmans and Tarnation's Jonathan Caouette, Feuerzeig compiles acres of interesting archival materials (old cassette recordings and home movies), including, in one fairly amazing scene, a document of Johnston's poor fundamentalist mother tearing him down--but even in that moment of near-revelation, the picture itself compares unfavourably with Terry Zwigoff's ambivalent, existentially traumatizing Crumb. There's a lot of blunt, distracting author intentionality in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and like L'Enfant, that stamp of the creator draws a bold line from where the story's Faulknerian man-child begins and the salvation to which he's inevitably bound. It lacks insight in its 16mm point-of-view re-creations, doing its best to draw attention to itself, and though footage of late Johnston concerts reminded me poignantly of accounts that I've heard of Tiny Tim's last days on his "whiff of the pathetic" tour, still bitter about Miss Vicki and losing his falsetto, the picture is little more than a decently-compiled, fan-inspired research project as opposed to something organically resonant or artful. Originally published: April 19, 2006.
THE DVD - L'ENFANT
by Bill Chambers Sony brings L'Enfant to DVD in a filmlike, 16x9-enhanced transfer pillarboxed at 1.66:1. The predictability of the Dardennes' aesthetic extends to the cool colours and soft definition of this presentation, though L'Enfant probably looks cleaner on home video than any of their previous films do. Likewise, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is expectedly monophonic. The only supplement of note is a 30-minute interview (also in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen) with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne conducted last October at what appears to be a French radio station by a disc jockey who, however sycophantic, isn't afraid to ask questions that might alienate casual listeners. ("People often say to you...that this could be a religious film without the religion. But you would not be the first to do this: in Bresson, religion wasn't always present, but there was the sacred. Do you feel that your films work through these questions?") For their part, the Dardenne Brothers are lucid and perhaps-surprisingly unpretentious, their eyes lighting up a bit when the host draws parallels between L'Enfant and the American zombie genre. Meanwhile, the filmmakers reveal that, more often than not, we're looking at a real baby. Trailers for The House of Sand and Quinceañara cue up on startup and join previews for Don't Come Knocking, Art School Confidential, Friends with Money, and Caché under a sub-menu. Subtitles are optional for the feature but forced during the aforementioned Q&A. Originally published: July 24, 2006.