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Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes

The Puffy Chair Poster      At last year's Cannes Film Festival, where "l'Enfant" ("The Child") won the Palm D'Or jury prize, the Belgian brother filmmakers, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes, talked excitedly about their film. Therein, a young street hoodlum, Bruno (Jeremie Renier), casually sells off his newborn, to the horror of   the mother, his teenager girlfriend, Sonia (Deborah Francois). Just who is the titular baby?

            "The film is not about paternity," said Jean-Pierre Dardennes. "It's about a character who is nor really there, a lightweight character. A bit like a child. He's never present. Sometime, he has to decide to be present."

            Jeanne-Pierre continued: "During our previous film, The Son, we were shooting several days in the city of Seraing. We saw a young woman going up and down the street with a pram, pushing it as if she wanted to get rid of the child inside. This image haunted us, and allowed us to invent a person: the possible father."

            Luc Dardennes: "Children have been abandoned forever, but selling children this way is perhaps a recent phenomenon. Bruno lives in the immediate moment. A child, Jimmy, comes along who lives in real time. Does Bruno's love for Sonia suffice to lead him to see and hear his child? We decided that love isn't enough."

            How do the Dardennes move to the actual filming? "I write the first version of the screenplay," said Luc. "I send it to my brother, he makes corrections, then we work together. When we get to the sixth version, we send it to a producer." The casting as Bruno of Jeremie Renier, who starred in their earlier La Promesse? "We found him by telephone. We didn't think of him immediately," admitted Jean-Pierre. Deborah Francois as Sonia? "We met her doing a screen test," said Luc. "We tried a lot of young girls, she was the best."

            "They put an adverisement in local papers," Francois interjected. "My brother read it, I sent off a photograph. Why not?"

            "Being a little criminal myself," Ranier piped in, "the part wasn't very difficult. I just walked about the streets of Seraing. As for Bruno's mobile, I use one all the time."

            "We did a lot of rehearsals," said Jean-Pierre. "We asked Jeremie to be free from August [in 2004] and for Deborah to cut short her vacation. We rehearsed on location until mid-September. It was one day that we felt that the characters were 'there.' They had a certain freedom, and we could work with this freedom."

            The Dardennes brothers readily admit the influence on their film of the minimalist cinema of Robert Bresson. They acknowledge that Sonia is borrowed from the similarly named character in Crime and Punishment.

            "Yes, Raskolnikov and Sonia!" said Jean-Pierre. "And Bresson is big for us! Impressive!"

            "We love Bresson's films. It's a fact that they are important to us," said Luc. "He's lean. He's dry. He's pure."  

            The casting of little Jimmy? "We always used a real baby," said Luc, " but you can only use one for so many hours. So we had 23 babies, for all the scenes except the dangerous one on the scooter, when we had a doll from London which we nicknamed Jimmy Crash."

            So how could Bruno be so insensitive to this child?

            "I don't know if he even realized Sonia was pregnant, and that's his baby," said Francois.

            "Bruno is unaware that he needs to visit his girlfriend in the hospital when she goes into labor," said Ranier. "Still, the character speaks to me. I understand his recklessness, the violence of his acts. He doesn't realize he can hurt. He lives to sleep, eat, get money."

            "The story is a mirror of our times," said Luc Dardennes. "It's difficult to find a center of gravity today, not just for Bruno. For everybody."

Boston Phoenix, May 2006


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