The Child (L'Enfant) (12A)<br/>The Proposition (18)

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The Independent Culture

It speaks pretty highly of Cannes juries that they awarded the Belgian film-makers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne last year's Palme d'Or for The Child, just as they did for Rosetta back in 1999. The Dardenne brothers' films aren't difficult to watch, but they are without doubt uncompromising, unglamorous and, in today's multiplex marketplace, more or less unsaleable. If you want a portrait of hand-to-mouth privation in today's Western Europe (and I suspect not many do), here is a good place to start.

Like Rosetta, this latest is set in the drab anonymity of an industrial town somewhere in Belgium, where 18-year-old Sonia (Déborah François) has returned from hospital with her newborn child to find her flat sublet by her boyfriend. That particular chancer is Bruno (Jérémie Renier), a couple of years older than Sonia yet about as unprepared for fatherhood as one could be without actually discarding human form. Bruno spends his days thieving and fencing - "only fuckers work," he says - and his fly-by-night economics don't easily accommodate an extra mouth to feed. From flogging video cameras he takes the casual but catastrophic step of selling his nine-day-old son into a blackmarket adoption ring. When Sonia returns home (home being a derelict riverbank where they're sleeping rough), he simply tells her what he's done and produces the thick wodge of cash that's their pay-off. Her first impulse, once she's recovered from her faint, is to call the police.

Too late has money-minded Bruno realised that not everything in the world can be sold. One may wonder how this truth could have eluded him for so long, but then it dawns that the "child" of the title is not the unfortunate infant but Bruno himself. Renier, with his mop of dirty-blond hair and loose-limbed swagger, gradually peels back the hard outer casing of this opportunist to expose a feckless, if not entirely charmless, moral illiterate: Bruno has never considered the consequences of his larcenous life, and now he's booked himself a terrifying catch-up lesson. His relationship with Sonia, so merry and carefree to begin with, finally breaks down when she pulls a kitchen knife on him. In a desperate bid to retrieve the baby he gets in deep with the people-traffickers, and every attempt to correct his original offence drags him deeper into a spiral of hopeless criminality.

The Dardennes put the movie together in their typically unassuming way, favouring handheld cameras and locations that just ache with dreariness - there always seems to be someone trying to cross a thunderous motorway in their films. Yet they're no slouches when it comes to dramatic development: the scene in which Bruno goes to a dodgy-looking lock-up to meet with the traffickers is sickeningly tense, and a later street theft and car chase are as exciting as any I've seen in recent Hollywood slam-bangers. Maybe they can grab the multiplex crowd after all. How they would cope with the film-makers' homage to their spiritual forebear is another matter. The undemonstrative tone, the focus upon characters in extremis and the refusal to sentimentalise are inherited from Robert Bresson, whose 1959 film Pickpocket is clearly referenced in the figure of the criminal who must lose everything before he can save himself. In their withholding of music the Dardennes' austerity is perhaps even more rigorous than Bresson, who at least allowed the occasional balm of Mozart to assuage the suffering of man. The Child might be a shade too unyielding in this respect, but in its humane examination of crime and punishment it gets just about everything else right.

"What fresh hell is this?" mutters Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), quoting Dorothy Parker about 50 years before the lady said it herself. The hell in question is the setting of The Proposition, the primordial, sunstruck expanse of the Australian outback in the early 1880s, where Stanley has been dispatched from England on a mission to civilise the region. His first move is to present a proposition to the captured outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce): either track down his older brother, the psychotic killer Arthur (Danny Huston), or else his younger brother Mikey will hang on Christmas Day. Director John Hillcoat, having hired Nick Cave to supply the film's soundtrack, later asked him to write the screenplay too. Now, Cave has written some wonderful lyrics in his time, and he plainly admires the folk legend of Ned Kelly; unfortunately he has a tin ear for dialogue and almost no grasp of narrative urgency. He is maddeningly inconsistent: Stanley, initially depicted as an authoritarian brute when he strikes a defenceless prisoner, is then revealed to be a decent but repressed fellow whose chief motivation is to shield his wife (Emily Watson, her skin almost alabaster against the roasted outback colours) from the dirty business of law enforcement.

More baffling still is the relationship between Charlie and Arthur: the former is supposed to be facing a dreadful dilemma, yet we have no clue as to what he actually feels about his bad-seed brother - Contempt? Pity? Love? There seems to be (at least) one crucial scene missing here. I was also unconvinced by John Hurt's blarneying bounty hunter and David Wenham as a Brit landowner with a cartoonishly broad mean streak.

The film is strong on atmosphere and the flyblown roughness of the settlers - I haven't seen such grizzled, sullen physiognomies since Warren Oates bestrode the screen - while the cinematographer, Benoît Delhomme, captures the feral beauty of the landscape in a way Nicolas Roeg did in 1971, with Walkabout. But these incidental felicities go for nothing when Hillcoat can't even stage a competent action sequence and Cave's screenplay shrinks from every challenge it needs to face.