In modern society there are a number of presumptions that enable and empower those who have to look down upon those who have not. Aspects of health, wealth, occupation, and hobbies are all treated as aspects of one’s morality. Don’t have a job? You must be of low moral character. Are you disabled or infirm in some way? This must be a choice you’re making. Can’t conceive a child? Clearly you don’t want to contribute to society. Each of these claims, stated or silent, lie in the back of our brains, generating disgust and disdain, as though somehow someone would choose a life other than the one they desire. It’s here that author Alain Jaspard’s Pleurer des rivières (Crying Rivers) finds its tension, adapted by first-time feature director Léopold Legrand into the film Le sixième enfant (The Sixth Child), as Jaspard’s story asks the audience to consider at what point we stop beating ourselves for other’s perceptions. More so, what does it mean when the law conflicts with desire and a sense of a higher purpose.
Two couples, Franck and Meriem (Damien Bonnard and Judith Chemla) and Julien and Anna (Benjamin Lavernhe and Sara Giraudeau), come together when Franck requires legal counsel and Meriem selects Julien from a website. What starts as a relationship centered on doing their best to clear Franck of his charges so that he can return to his family turns into something more when an offer is made to Julien and Anna to take Franck and Meriem’s upcoming sixth child as payment for Julien’s services. Unreal of an offer as it is, illegal and ill-advised as it is, Anna wants to take them up on it, kick-starting a series of events that will changes their lives forever.
Having not read the original novel, this review will not draw comparisons as an adaptation or otherwise be able to speak to Legrand and co-writer Catherine Paillé’s ability to translate the novel into a screenplay. What is clear, however, is that The Sixth Child is an intricately layered drama for which there are no clear cut answers. At every stage (and there was a moment so dramatic that it caused me to audibly question the actions on screen) there is a reasonable answer that not only addresses or explains why the dramatics of the situation are so high, but also the complexity of the situation we witness. What does this mean? For one, Franck and Meriem come from gyspy culture (not clearly defined as Romany so it’s hard to tell if the designation is culturally appropriate or meant as a denigration of the couple) with Franck working several jobs to provide for his five existing children and his wife. As portrayed by Bonnard, Franck is an honorable person, willing to put in the work, willing to do whatever is necessary to provide for his family, even if it means carrying a burden all on his own. Presented by Chemla, Meriem is not merely a devoted wife and babymaker, she’s someone with a kind heart, doing her best to uplift her children beyond their trailer park home. The two are faced with hard times and, being Catholic, terminating the pregnancy is not an option. Additionally, from their faith comes a persistent guilt of what an open adoption (a very legal way to do things) would mean for the child when it grew up, removing that as an option. Through the performances and finding facets to work within, the characters take shape as complex individuals trying to do their best in a terrible circumstance. Smartly, the script manages to paint Julien and Anna in a similar light so that their status as lawyers (Julien with criminal law, Anna with real estate) or members of the bourgeoisie doesn’t create an argument for classism between the parties. Because of this, what unfurls before us is filled with kindness, fear, desire, and love. Love that would defy the law in order to become complete.
One would think that a film like The Sixth Child would be haunting, that it would skulk around, obfuscating like a thriller as to whether these two families can successfully circumvent the law in order to trade the baby. Instead, the film is shot far more naturally, with colors as vibrant as they would be at the appropriate season, place, and time. This helps to communicate that, even as the situation is weighted and emotionally intricate, the people at the core of it aren’t seeking any kind of advantage over the other. The lack of judgement is present in the performances from the four leads, thus the support in Julien Ramirez Hernan’s cinematography infuses the film with artful truth rather than artificial suspense. Because of this, there are some who may linger on this and wish for the suspense, and these people are in search of a different story. Intentionally or not, The Sixth Child makes a case for the ways in which laws, religion, and even personal action control each of us every day. That the people around us will bray and moan over helping the helpless while doing nothing, satisfied more by feeling good about themselves than providing actionable solutions for those in need. These are the same people that get angry at sending support to another country (financial or not) because “what about the people here who need help?” and then still do nothing. Here, a tough decision is made, one that no parent who cares for their children wishes to make and the script nor the performances offer a sense that this weight is far from their conscience. To view The Sixth Child as advocacy for rule-breaking or human trafficking (which this is) would be to miss the very human conflict going on within. Rather, it offers an exploration of what it means to be childless when all you want after trying so hard to do it right is to feel the warmth of a baby’s skin, their gentle touch, their soft cry, and you can’t. Conversely, the idea that one can do all that is right by your faith and still feel like you’ve reached a limit on what you can handle because taking on more would endanger everyone.
According to a September 30th, 2022, interview with Jaspard, the basis for his novel and this film is loosely based in truth. In that same interview, Legrand states how he and Paillé sought to give The Sixth Child a sense of urgency, like a social thriller. Seeing as the characters, to some degree, are knowingly engaging in law-breaking, taking direct action to ease their relative pains through the trade of the soon-to-be-born, there is a constant sense that the truth could come out at any time. Even if the look of the film doesn’t convey this, the music from Louis Sclavis (Kadosh) certainly adds to the intensity, elevating the already tension-filled birthing sequence — Meriem’s discomfort, Anne’s anticipation, Franck and Julien’s feeling, will the child survive? — even higher as any breach in authenticity, one slip of the tongue, could have everything crumble around them. The film thrills, places us on edge, because, all told, the audience becomes more than a complicit observer, we are actively rooting for all involved.
As I close, please allow a tiny bit of context. I have two children, each conceived more-or-less naturally, but without the need for IVF or other major medical necessities. I have friends who have not been as fortunate, who have had to say goodbye to their hopes as they’ve buried them and continue to mourn this loss, whether or not other children came later. I have friends who went through the exhaustive and often treacherous journey of adoption, turned away for the most minute reasons or had the process prolonged for what seemed little more than politics. There is nothing about the inability to have children when you want them that makes you less-than. It’s not a character flaw nor is it a failure. The opposite is merely a different fallacy. Through their film, Legrand and Paillé explore the human side of conception and all the mines that come with the success or failure of desire. This social thriller of theirs will sneak up on you soon after the start and will keep you locked in until the end, unsure and unaware of how it will resolve. But, if you’re lucky, it may just provide a different perspective on an incredibly multifaceted issue.
Screening during Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Pyramide Films The Sixth Child (Le sixième enfant) webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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