Time and morality: how the passing of time in L’Enfant evokes a sense of moral acknowledgement

In Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s 2005 film L’Enfant, protagonist Bruno’s (20) girlfriend Sonia (18) has just given birth to their child, Jimmy 1 Both unemployed, they are barely surviving off her welfare cheques and his crimes, until Bruno decides to sell their baby for a large sum of money to a black market adoption without Sonia knowing. What he sees as a quick fix for their financial instability, she interprets as an utterly disturbing and sickening act. Feeling guilty for the shock he has caused her, Bruno eventually buys the baby back but is then turned down by Sonia. Eventually, Bruno ends up in jail after yet another petty crime. The film ends when Sonia comes to visit him in jail, and we see them embracing one last time in a moment of shared despair and anguish.

While viewing L’Enfant, the viewer may have an initial experience of apathy, anger or irritation towards Bruno and his apparently immoral choices and actions with regard to his relations to Sonia and their child Jimmy. Consequently, the viewer might like to condemn Bruno for the immorality of his decision to sell their baby to solve their financial and socio-economic problems. However, by applying Stanley Cavell’s theory to interpret the morality of Bruno’s actions, the film suggests that it is not necessarily Bruno’s responsibility to change his choices, but instead the viewer’s responsibility to acknowledge him as a human being, a moral agent. This does not mean we ought to accept and tolerate him, but instead, we could recognize his presence in the world and consider his choices with respect to his socio-economic context. Thus, the film appeals to and questions the rigid and universal moral rules Western society has imposed on human beings, thereby shedding light on the relativity and subjectivity of morality itself. By bringing Gilles Deleuze into this discussion, we can start to realize how post-war films like L’Enfant and their corresponding society seem to be precarious and devoid of meaning, intention or direction. This is discernible in the seemingly random objects on screen, the physical space in which the characters find themselves and in the way time passes throughout the film. Thus, this paper attempts to morally acknowledge Bruno and consider his socio-economic context with regards to how the film portrays setting, duration, objects and human interaction. Important to note is that both Cavell and Deleuze have not written about L’Enfant. Instead, their concepts will be applied to further understand why the viewer might have an initial apathy or resentment towards Bruno and his seemingly immoral behavior, and how this feeling can be transformed into acknowledgement. In part I and II, we will discuss Deleuze’s conceptions of space and objects in order to situate Bruno and Sonia’s (economic) status, their relationship and their lack of autonomy in the physical spaces they inhabit and the objects with which they are surrounded. In part III, we will look at how Deleuze’s concepts of time and the consciousness of passing time stands in relation to Cavell’s understanding of morality. Lastly, part IV invites the shift from Bruno’s condemnation to his moral acknowledgement by questioning Western normative morality according to Cavell’s ethics.

(Empty) space

In Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Deleuze explains why European post-war films have become dominated by the concept and thematization of time. Films in this era, according to Deleuze, are subjected to the experience and consciousness of time. This results in the agency and responsibility of the viewer to realize that time itself also plays a role. Deleuze argues that these post-war films, defined as “optical and sound situations,” tend to depict aimless characters in “any-space-whatever.”2 In contrast to these optical and sound situations are sensory-motor situations depicted in pre-war films in which the setting “is already specified and presupposes an action which discloses it.”3 The characters in “any-space-whatever” seem to find themselves in this space, and their aimlessness is conveyed through their “disconnection or vacuity.”4 The individuals inhabiting it seem to be accustomed to their physical situation and treat it as natural and normal, despite the space’s lack of meaning and inability to provide basic warmth or comfort. This heightens the viewer’s uncanny feeling, since “we no longer know how to react to [these situations], in spaces which we no longer know how to describe.”5 We are thus placed in an “empty space.”6

By making the hut by the river an essential, yet hostile, space in which the characters frequently find themselves, the arbitrariness and worthlessness of their actions and existences are heightened.

In L’Enfant, we often see Sonia and Bruno return to a dilapidated hut by a river, which is only reached by traversing a dangerous and busy road, crossing a bridge and then walking down steps between rugged bushes.7 In the first scene where Sonia and Bruno are outside the hut, she playfully trips him, they embrace affectionately, and she says “I’m happy” despite the fact that Bruno was unreachable during her labor.8 Noticeably, Bruno is thinking of something else while embracing Sonia and their child (i.e. of money), and thus abruptly ends the embrace and says “let’s go.”9 Until this moment, the viewer has not noticed any genuine affection or care from Bruno towards Sonia and their baby. Their picturesque embrace featuring the father, the mother and the baby, seems out of place in the gray, hazy and industrial setting, with background noises of the gushing river and the scraping of pebbles. They seem accustomed to the surroundings, returning to the hut by the river several times throughout the film and treating the space as a home. However, the space is noticeably not of a homely nature: it is barren, abandoned, and seems as if it could collapse at any given moment. Moreover, they never sleep or live in the hut; it is merely a place where Bruno stashes some belongings. They often seem to randomly ‘show up’ there without any decisive goal and without really knowing how they ended up there, thereby displaying the vacuity of the space and the characters it accommodates. Such a type of space “take[s] on an autonomy” and becomes for the viewer an “instance of pure contemplation.”10 Thus, contemplation is not created by how the characters influence the space devoid of value, comfort and relief, but instead by the space itself which influences the characters’ behavior and mindset. The scenes by the hut are, counter to the viewer’s expectations, not about Bruno and Sonia as autonomous agents, but rather as meaningless objects altered and shaped by their surroundings. By making the hut by the river an essential, yet hostile, space in which the characters frequently find themselves, the arbitrariness and worthlessness of their actions and existences are heightened. Moreover, Deleuze argues that through the “descriptive power of color and sounds, [the optical and sound situations] replace, obliterate and re-create” the space which the characters fill.11 The space is determined by the colors and sounds of its objects (i.e., the river, the pebbles, the industrial background) which display a harsh climate which the characters, in vain, attempt to tame. The affectionate embrace is juxtaposed with the uncanny and hostile visual and aural surrounding, thereby emphasizing Sonia’s desperate attempt to form a stable relationship and Bruno’s inability to provide or feel affection.

The space itself, and its ability to stand in juxtaposition to the characters’ physical affection, establishes an image of Bruno and Sonia’s socio-economic status. This status prevents them from living and being in a safer, more stable and more heartwarming environment which could foster their relationship. Instead, the physical circumstances in which they find themselves affect their choices. The dilapidated hut which Bruno could call ‘home’ and in which he finds himself, directly affects and forms his immoral actions. By recognizing his low standard of living, we are perhaps able to acknowledge his physical and social surroundings and the financial difficulties he faces on a daily basis.

The precedence of objects

Objects within Deleuze’s empty spaces also influence the characters, their movements and choices. Deleuze argues that the objects themselves “take on an autonomous, material reality which gives them an importance in themselves.”12 This means that, instead of characters influencing or controlling their surroundings, the world influences them as they “see and hear the things and the people, in order for action or passion to be born.”13 The body ceases to be a vessel of determination, intention or direction, and is thus wholly dependent on the objects by which it is surrounded. By focusing not on the characters and their bodies’ actions, but instead on the objects, the arbitrariness of the objects is illuminated and heightened. The characters in these empty spaces, these optical and sound situations, have no agency, power or control over the objects and spaces in their vicinity, and are therefore unable to “adapt” or “modify” them as individuals usually are able to.14

There are characteristic objects present during Sonia and Bruno’s more affectionate encounters. In the scene mentioned above, the pebbles around the dilapidated hut have a significant role in initiating the playfulness in their relationship. Sonia humorously trips Bruno and then playfully kicks pebbles at him as he throws them in her direction.15 Their childish, giggly game triggered by the pebbles, initiates the first embrace that we see of them. In a later scene, when holding sandwiches as they violently kiss, their food acts as perverted sources of desire. Their sexual embrace ends as they lean back out of breath, resuming in the activity of eating their lunch after their short erotic intermezzo. Then, Sonia opens a fizzing soda can and points it at Bruno, resulting in the continuation of their childish food fight.16 It is therefore not their relationship that initiates playfulness or sexual attraction, but rather the objects with which they are surrounded and with which they interact. The last scene of the film, in which Sonia visits Bruno in prison, Bruno gazes down and takes a sip of the cup of coffee sitting between Sonia and him. What follows is a sentimental embrace as both cry, despairing the situation in which they are. The cup itself seems to initiate their shared despair.17 These objects, in triggering short-lived happiness, sexual attraction and mutual feeling, act as centerpieces to their relationship and evoke a sense of affection towards each other. Thus, the characters depend on the objects at their disposal to foster their relationship, instead of relying on their own autonomous actions, movements or personalities.

The characters depend on the objects at their disposal to foster their relationship, instead of relying on their own autonomous actions, movements or personalities.

Time and morality

The objects, however, that seem to define and initiate the affection in their relationship, are essentially arbitrary, despite their fundamental purpose in fostering the relationship. This apparent randomness sheds light on the relationship itself, which, as a result, appears devoid of meaning, intention or direction. By spending time with the characters and their objects during their warmhearted moments, we come to realize the frivolousness of their relationship and the lack of purpose in their lives. Thus, the objects, instead of the humans, have a “sense of presentness” to them.18 Cavell’s book The World Viewed argues that filmgoers can re-examine their film experiences by inviting concepts like consciousness, subjectivity, presence and morality into the meta-discussion of film itself. Cavell argues that “[a]t some point the unhinging of our consciousness from the world interposed our subjectivity between us and our presentness to the world. Then our subjectivity became what is present to us, individuality became isolation.”19 However, Sonia and Bruno are unable to establish a presentness in the world, and are thus unable to acknowledge the presence of ‘self’ due to their reliance on their objects and surroundings.20 Without being able to acknowledge oneself as a moral agent with a present, autonomous and authentic ‘self,’ others cannot either. This results in their inability to “establish connection with reality.”21 They remain isolated from better living situations and surroundings and from healthier relations with themselves and each other.

Moreover, the logic between scenes and the characters’ apparent aimlessness show how neither the characters nor the viewer comprehends why they are placed in a specific physical situation and what they are supposed to be doing. By perceiving the body as dependent on its surroundings and indeterminate as to its existence, the viewer has the opportunity to think of time, be aware that the film appeals to time, and notice that time is passing.22 The absence of a predetermined, predictable narrative further initiates the viewer’s contemplation of time, since nothing else presents itself as a source of inspiration or thought. This is perceived in the scene in which Bruno, in utter boredom, prints his muddy shoe-print onto a wall in an arbitrary alley.23 The viewer sees him aimlessly wandering, and feels how time passes for both Bruno and the viewer’s experience. We wonder: ‘what brought him to this alley, what purpose does he have?’ but this remains unanswered, since it cannot be explained by the fact that he is expecting a call from the black market adoption organizers. The viewer, therefore, waits with Bruno, feels his boredom and recognizes his aimlessness. In the next scene, the viewer is forced to endure Bruno’s uneventful bus ride and stroll towards a building in a park where he has arranged to drop off Jimmy for the adoption, in exchange for a large sum of money.24 Precisely by developing consciousness of time, the film gives rise to and accentuates the characters’ false movements, which are actions which do not lead anywhere.25 During this scene, we are able to contemplate Bruno’s desultory actions and in what arbitrary and irrelevant ways he passes the seemingly infinite time that he has.

Time becomes thematized further when Bruno carries Jimmy through the building where the illegal adoption exchange is to take place. We see them enter the building through the door and walk through several darkened, empty corridors as Bruno constantly gets phone calls from the people organizing the black market adoption. We then see Bruno in a sterile area waiting for the elevators which do not seem to be working.26 We watch him get irritated, and then choose to walk the stairs, an endeavor which we, as viewers, are again forced to endure.27 His impatient waiting appeals to Deleuze’s concept of ‘time-image,’ in which the viewer is obliged to linger on the characters and watch how time itself moves, instead of the characters. The objectivity of time (a matter of very long minutes between Bruno’s actions in the building and his exit) is contrasted to the viewer’s subjective sense of passing time, which feels longer and perhaps more exhausting. We wait while Bruno waits, thereby identifying with his impatience and nervousness. By thematizing time to such an extent that the viewer recognizes that it is passing, there arises thought and contemplation of time as a concept within the film. The viewer is somewhat distanced from the film and is capable of reflecting on it, rather than being wholly captivated by it. Bruno’s impatience to drop Jimmy off and leave quickly after picking up the money reveals the morality of his actions to the viewer. It takes much longer to find the room where he has to drop Jimmy off, than to quickly leave the building with the money. By contemplating this contrast in duration, we realize his impatience to get the money, which seems more important than his baby. According to our normative sense of morality, this seems highly immoral behavior. It is exactly through the passing of time and the awareness of its passing that the viewer comes into contact with the ethical and the scene’s appeal to and questioning of normative morality.

It is exactly through the passing of time and the awareness of its passing that the viewer comes into contact with the ethical and the scene’s appeal to and questioning of normative morality.

Presence and acknowledgement

L’Enfant, however, also displays certain elements of the sensory-motor situation, alluding to systematic and goal-oriented actions, which in turn allude to Bruno’s urgency to gain money in whatever way possible (whether that is to pawn clothing or to sell his baby). While strolling around with Jimmy, Bruno uses the opportunity to earn some money from an old lady who pities his situation.28 Although it might not be very moral, he has created and pursued a purpose in his life. Moreover, after he gets a call from someone that he has to pay a debt to, he looks down at the stroller, abruptly turns around and makes another call.29 The viewer can see Bruno logically thinking that by putting Jimmy up for adoption, he can gain money and pay the debt. Although external circumstances influence him to form this logical conclusion, he very determinedly pursues his goals. Thus, parts of the film are in actuality layered with pre-established meaning which is disclosed by deliberative, goal-oriented actions.30 Deleuze argues that time is not thematized in such instances since the viewer is completely captivated by the eventful actions. Such instances leave no room for contemplating on matters of morality. Thus, the viewer, lacking time for reflection, immediately concludes by condemning Bruno without realizing the possibility of acknowledging him. The initial feeling of apathy towards Bruno mentioned earlier, is rekindled because we interpret his behaviors as being immoral according to normative understandings of morality. This hasty, and arguably unjust, conclusion is due to the fact that time is not thematized, meaning that it is not overtly present in these scenes: the viewer is captivated and unable to reflect or criticize. It is in such instances that we are unable to question our rules of morality imprinted in society. The result is an impulsive condemnation determined by normative morality, lacking justification or consciousness.

The film leaves us in a state of confusion as our seemingly rigid sense of morality fractures, thereby creating space for a re-evaluation of time and morality.

Furthermore, one could argue that Bruno’s actions really are immoral, that they truly oppose our sense of morality and that he deserves his imprisonment. Why should we acknowledge Bruno, as Cavell suggests we do, if he acts in such opposition to our standards of morality, thereby harming innocent and goodhearted people like Jimmy and Sonia? Perhaps one could conclude that it is to relieve our conscience: by acknowledging him as a human with a difficult lifestyle and context, one is being compassionate and benevolent, and thus feels good about oneself. However, this is not what Cavell has in mind. Cavell notes that we have a “terror of ourselves in isolation” which derives from humanity and from ourselves.31 To overcome this terror, we must “wish for selfhood,” an authentic understanding and representation of the self present in reality, as well as the “always simultaneous granting of otherness.”32 Will we leave Bruno in isolation from the rest of humanity, or will we include him, despite―or precisely because of―his immoral behavior? The moral gaze depends on us; while viewing L’Enfant, we are being tested to see whether we can assert Bruno’s selfhood―his moral and autonomous being present and active in the world―and whether we are morally capable enough to rip ourselves from ideological and normative conceptions of morality. Thus, we get the opportunity to see Bruno within his lifestyle, to consider his socio-economic context, and to acknowledge his priorities. By acknowledging our own presence―our self―in the world, we can do the same for others. Consequently, we can establish some sense of empathy or concern for others. Thus, acknowledgement goes two ways: Bruno shows his life and acknowledges our presence as (film)viewers so that we have the chance to acknowledge him.

In conclusion, L’Enfant distinguishes what the film makes us feel from what the film is trying to say or allude to. The film appeals to our ideologically ingrained moral judgments and questions their legitimacy, rigidity and universality. Thus, our initial feeling towards the film (i.e., what the film makes us feel) is to condemn Bruno and his seemingly immoral actions. But this condemnation is too hasty. Instead, the film, through its emphasis on time, space and objects, attempts to suggest a different attitude towards Bruno and his actions. It asks us to question and critique this initial feeling in order to discover other modes of relating to the protagonist. By exploring ways in which the time-image appeals to the viewer’s capacity to contemplate Bruno’s actions, the events in which he finds himself, and the objects and surroundings enveloping him, this initial feeling diminishes. Thus, his condemnation transforms into acknowledgement as the viewer is both immersed in and contemplative of the film, its thematization of time, and its allusion to a more subjective and relativized sense of morality. The film leaves us in a state of confusion as our seemingly rigid sense of morality fractures, thereby creating space for a re-evaluation of time and morality.

  1. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, dir., L’Enfant (Sony Pictures Classics, 2005), DVD.
  2. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 5.
  3. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2, 5.
  4. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2, 15.
  5. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2, xi.
  6. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2, 5.
  7. Dardenne and Dardenne, L’Enfant, 00:02:54 – 00:08:08.
  8. Dardenne and Dardenne, L’Enfant, 00:08:00.
  9. Dardenne and Dardenne, L’Enfant, 00:08:00.
  10. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 16.
  11. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 12.
  12. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 4.
  13. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 4.
  14. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 5.
  15. Dardenne and Dardenne, L’Enfant, 00:06:22 – 00:06:31.
  16. Dardenne and Dardenne, L’Enfant, 00:17:25 – 00:19:26.
  17. Dardenne and Dardenne, L’Enfant, 01:26:47.
  18. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 22.
  19. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed, 22.
  20. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed, 22.
  21. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed, 23.
  22. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 22-23.
  23. Dardenne and Dardenne, L’Enfant, 00:26:58.
  24. Dardenne and Dardenne, L’Enfant, 00:27:51 – 00:28:44.
  25. Deleuze, Cinema 2, xi.
  26. Dardenne and Dardenne, L’Enfant, 00:29:45 – 00:30:18.
  27. Dardenne and Dardenne, L’Enfant, 00:30:41 – 00:31:02.
  28. Dardenne and Dardenne, L’Enfant, 00:24:22.
  29. Dardenne and Dardenne, L’Enfant, 00:25:53.
  30. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 5.
  31. Cavell, The World Viewed, 22.
  32. Cavell, The World Viewed, 22.