IFFR 2022 review: The Child (Marguerite de Hillerin & Félix Dutilloy-Liégeois)

“In the end The Child cements de Hillerin and Dutilloy-Liégeois as a talented duo to keep an eye on, and it is a film whose deep feeling of saudade belies its French origins”

A web of secrets holds together the fabric of The Child (A Criança), the debut feature of French directing duo Marguerite de Hillerin and Félix Dutilloy-Liégeois. Loosely based on Heinrich von Kleist’s masterclass in suspense The Findling, the narrative of The Child might lack the murder in von Kleist’s story, but there is no shortage of tension in this tale of clandestine liaisons and tragic relationships in which every character has something to hide. The directors may be French, but the film has undeniable Portuguese sensibilities, and that is not only down to its setting and its largely Portuguese cast. Shades of Manoel de Oliveira and Rita Azevedo Gomes can be found all over The Child, a film that builds unease to the point where the idyllic life of a well-to-do family starts to unravel.

Portugal, mid-16th century. Bela (João Arrais) is the son of a wealthy merchant and his second wife Maria (Maria João Pinho), though not by birth. His father Pierre (Grégory Gadebois) adopted him during his first marriage when his natural son set sail for Africa, never to return. On the surface Bela has everything a young man in his position would want to look forward to: control over the family business is in his future and a well-suited fiancée has been arranged for him. But something is pressing on him, and it is not just his secret love for Rosa (Inês Pires Tavares), a young servant stolen from Morocco and now working in a nearby monastery. The couple makes plans to run away, but once their secret is discovered by Pierre, forces beyond Bela’s reach begin to tear down the structure of the family, as Bela is not the only one to harbour secrets. Jacques (Loïc Corbery), a former soldier and live-in family friend, has a role to play in the family dynamics, and Bela’s adoptive mother also has something hidden in her past that, once Bela discovers it, starts to gnaw at him. And are Rosa’s motives pure or is there more to her?

This tapestry of mysteries and tragedies is fodder for melodrama, but de Hillerin and Dutilloy-Liégeois opt for a different and far more artistic approach. Leisurely paced, The Child‘s carefully studied set of tableaux, caught by Mário Barroso’s magnificently lit and well-choreographed cinematography, give the film a rhythm of pending doom and melancholy that signals to the viewer that its moments of romantic playfulness will be fleeting. The family are at the zenith of their wealth and power, but after the zenith comes the decline, and thus they reflect Portugal as a world power whose influence would start to wane towards the end of the century. This is further reflected in the locations, in particular the family home where decay already seems to have taken root. The lost grandeur that can be found in many places in Portugal today is in full display here, further extending the idea of decline setting in.

De Hillerin and Dutilloy-Liégeois display remarkable control over their film, all the more impressive given that it is their debut. Slow pans and zooms set the pace as they slowly open up their characters and reveal their insecurities, their jealousy, and their loaded relationships. They weave in strands of colonialism, the inquisition, and even homoeroticism to create a rich background for the story, but the main focus remains on Bela and his struggle with his place in the family as an adopted child. A struggle that weighs on him and that he has the urge to escape from, perceiving himself as perhaps not the wanted child even if his family gives him all he needs and wants. If there is one criticism to be leveled at The Child it’s that the denouement is a bit rushed, but when done in such poetic voiceover (there are other bouts of poetic language throughout the film) it is a minor niggle. In the end The Child cements de Hillerin and Dutilloy-Liégeois as a talented duo to keep an eye on, and it is a film whose deep feeling of saudade belies its French origins.