I suppose there is a powerful effect in the act of recording an actor acting. Many directors fall in love with this notion and deliberately attach their camera to the characters. All they have to do is wait and they will burst.
But it’s a pretty simple notion of storytelling. And also, so damaging. It is a matter of predisposition that if the story is mildly engaging, it will trigger our automatic responses. The ‘actorly’ film exploits this technique, usually in service of a tragic fate. But the whole thing would collapse without the performance. And that’s not nourishment.
I mention all that because you might think this is such a film. And it is, but only partly. There is a deviation here that is handled in a clever way.
Movies that try to be like this one have the characters drive the story forward. That usually entails that character flaws motivate the action. The main character here is irresponsible and selfish, and part of the effect is watching to what lenghts his idiocy extends. But it is much more than simply observing him get into trouble. There is a deliberate elaboration of how exactly he gets trapped in the mechanics of the world.
For instance, we see him sell the baby, and assume castigation. But he ends up retrieving it. He splurges and is in debt. But eventually he runs into money again! There seems to be an ingenious collaboration with the environment. He meets with ‘clandestine’ agents and acolytes. He deploys schemes.
And all of these dynamics orbit around a woman. Someone with whom he shares timeless intimacies. Someone who resists damage or elegantly avoids it. A strong woman, unself-conscious and pure, who appears to exist apart from the world of tragic fate.
An engineering of the story that warrants engagement. I think it is because there is an undefined clockwork that grinds, controlling our hero’s fate. What’s amazing is that this is what the Dardennes think the world is truly like. An opposing relentless force driving us towards nowhere. A narrative device.
Our hero ends up in prison. You may assume this is his punishment. But I think not. It is the same thing. And that’s a scary notion…