There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Rust-belt Belgium and high-plateau Tibet have at least this in common: Life there can be hard. Despite being as dissimilar as their settings, L’Enfant and Mountain Patrol: Kekexili both make that clear, depicting existence at the very edge of human sustainability. The two films also take visual and narrative cues from cinéma vérité. But the wilderness facing L’Enfant’s protagonist is internal. The one that scourges Mountain Patrol’s characters is the great outdoors.
Although hardly more sanguine about working-class life than sibling writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ earlier Rosetta and The Son, L’Enfant is a bit less claustrophobic. In those two predecessors, cinematographer Alain Marcoen’s handheld camera rarely left the orbit of the central character; here, the principal player isn’t even introduced immediately. The new movie also closes a circle with the Dardennes’ breakthrough, 1996’s The Promise, a bleak tale that nonetheless qualifies as their most hopeful. Both movies observe a young man’s relationship with an impoverished woman and her child, and in each, the man is played by Jérémie Renier. But whereas Renier’s teenage character quickly accepted the burden of doing the right thing, his grown-up alter ego automatically does the opposite.
L’Enfant opens with a woman returning to her apartment a few days after having given birth. This is Sonia (Déborah François), an 18-year-old who imagines her life will become more settled now that she’s the mother of baby Jimmy. Hardly. She discovers that her heedless boyfriend, Bruno (Renier), has sublet her apartment, leaving her homeless. Moving with so purposeful a gait that she briefly seems the film’s protagonist—who in a Dardennes film is always in resolute motion—she soon finds Bruno panhandling in traffic. Not inclined to keep a single coin in his pocket, Bruno has already spent the money he got for renting the apartment and returned to his usual sources of income. One of these is fencing stuff stolen by a small gang of elementary-school kids; when he goes to sell a video camera they’ve heisted, the buyer tells him she could also sell Jimmy. To Bruno, this sounds like a fine idea. As soon as he gets the baby to himself, he makes the deal.
Somewhat to Bruno’s surprise, Sonia doesn’t understand. He realizes that she won’t cooperate with his scheme to tell the police that Jimmy was kidnapped. Panicked, Bruno arranges to buy Jimmy back. But the dealers don’t simply want their money returned; they insist Bruno pay a significant penalty. “Only fuckers work,” Bruno tells Sonia, but now he has a full-time job: raising 5,000 euros before the baby peddlers kill him.
The money doesn’t really matter, at least not to the filmmakers. They’re less interested in the resolution of Bruno’s immediate dilemma than in the larger matter of his moral transformation, if that’s even possible. Yet L’Enfant is more of a thriller than any movie the brothers have made since The Promise, expanding the universe of the self-imprisoned Dardennes character to include cops and robbers. There’s a harrowing chase scene that leads to a climactic realization, as well as procedural details involving Bruno and his gang. The latter are among the narrative elements that explicitly recall Pickpocket, the closest thing to a slick crime flick in the portfolio of Robert Bresson, the Dardennes’ great inspiration.
Although the siblings would be lost making a conventional policier, their style is not entirely unsuited to the subject. Dardennes films are driven, fidgety, and wholly unsweetened, whether by music or sentimentality. Avoiding any hint of the picturesque—no one will ever consider arranging a tour of the brothers’ Belgium—the movies seem naturalistic and yet supercharged, despite the fact that the scenes usually play in real time. Whether inspired or simply intimidated, their casts are equally intent, giving performances of unparalleled urgency and tenacious focus. The result is far from conventional entertainment but still thrilling to experience.
The brothers prefer stark titles, but their last two have been less blunt than they seem: There were two sons in The Son, a dead one and a possible surrogate, and there are two children in L’Enfant, Jimmy and Bruno. But then, nearly everyone in the filmmakers’ universe is childlike in some way, whether because of pique, narcissism, or, in the case of Bruno, a sort of moral ignorance so pure that it’s almost indistinguishable from evil. Veterans of leftist documentary-making, the Dardennes are sometimes compared to social-problem directors like Ken Loach. The system the brothers decry, however, is operated by powers in the heart and the head, not at the IMF.
Mountain Patrol: Kekexili could have been a political film—except, of course, that it couldn’t. Made in Tibet by a Chinese writer-director, Lu Chuan, the movie can’t address the issues of China’s absorption of that country, or of Tibetan resistance to it. Indeed, the whole story can be seen as a case of sublimation: Rather than battle the Chinese, the members of the titular patrol take to the wilds to foil poachers of the endangered Tibetan antelope. The rest of the political and economic framework that encourages the poaching must be supplied by the viewer.
Based on the real adventures of an actual (but since disbanded) group of volunteers, Mountain Patrol avoids geopolitical issues by stressing something that’s more immediate: protecting the antelopes—and the antelopes’ protectors—in a region that’s as inhospitable as it is spectacular. The setup, as well as many of the set pieces, are familiar from decades of manly mountain and desert epics. Chinese-Tibetan reporter Ga Yu (Zhang Lei) arrives to do a feature about Ri Tai (Duo Bujie) and his band of rough-edged, machine-gun-toting conservationists. Having an outsider in their ranks, the normally taciturn mountain men must explain to him—and therefore to us—what they do. Then the conflict begins, with starvation, quicksand, and pulmonary edema potentially just as deadly to the patrol members as the ruthless poachers. If the scenery and scale suggest a Hollywood Western, the vibe is that of a late, disillusioned example of the genre. In other words, don’t expect the good guys to win.
A film that’s been around the festival circuit a few times since its 2004 premiere, Mountain Patrol was not made on a shoestring budget. It’s a co-production of National Geographic, Samuel Goldwyn, and Columbia Pictures Asia, and cinematographer Cao Yu clearly never forgot that Geographic was on board: Mountains loom, distances awe, and high-altitude sunlight dapples this forbidding wonderland. The documentary elements include disturbing views of the aftermath of a mass antelope slaughter—the animals are killed for their wool, known as shahtoosh—although scenes of actual butchery are merely suggested. A sky burial, in which the parts of a human corpse are fed to vultures, is also intimated rather than shown.
Set in 1996, during the patrol’s final days, the film has an elegiac quality that can be variously interpreted. (One possibility: While antelope herds have reportedly made a modest comeback, Tibetans remain threatened.) Yet as it proceeds, there’s little time for contemplation. If not as intimate and insistent as L’Enfant, the movie does have a powerful you-are-there quotient. The larger issues may be obscured, but Mountain Patrol temporarily makes the matter of a few men’s survival seem like the biggest thing in the world.CP