Kidnappers: Social reproduction, crime, and gender in Nénette et Boni and Shoplifters

by Alva Gotby

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2018 film Shoplifters is less about shoplifting and more about what it means to adopt a child without the state’s permission – also known as kidnapping. This act of care for a child implies not only criminalization but a reconfiguration of what we know as family. Questions of social reproduction, crime, and gender are intertwined throughout the film’s narrative, as are issues of who is recognized as family. Through an extended mediation of what the authorities come to label kidnapping, Shoplifters recalls Claire Denis’ 1996 film Nénette et Boni, which also deals with the construction of family through ‘illegitimate,’ non-normative means. The two films ask who can be recognised as a parent, and what it would mean to care for a child, not on the basis of blood or law, but through comradely emotional ties and solidarity. The films respond in different ways to a society characterised by what Sophie Lewis has called ‘organized care scarcity,’ in which the care of children is restricted to particular relations that might be violent and abusive, as well as hierarchically structured by gender, class, and race. The films portray the social reproduction of those who are partially excluded from wage labour, and instead surviving through informal economies. Normative social reproduction should be understood as deeply intertwined with relations of labour, as those who lack a wage are also less likely to be included in family structures that produce normatively gendered and heterosexual subjects.

In Nénette et Boni, we follow the young protagonist Boni (portrayed by Grégoire Colin) as he goes from wayward, messy, and horny young man to loving carer for his newborn nephew. This journey involves his teenage sister Nénette showing up on his doorstep, seven months pregnant but unwilling to care for the child. Before Nénette’s arrival, Boni spends his time working in a pizza truck and keeping a diary of his violent sexual fantasies about a woman who works in the neighbourhood bakery. His household seems to consist of a revolving set of male friends, who are engaged in various activities of dubious legality – selling stolen goods when they can and working in the pizza truck when they feel like it. With a dead mother and a father he hates, Boni has had relatively little parental supervision. Through his diary entries, he performs a hyperbolic and almost pathetic form of violent heterosexuality. The object of his desire, the slightly older wife of a baker (never named in the film), is a blond mother-girlfriend who smiles as she stands behind the counter. Through the film’s use of visual metaphor, their bodies become bread. Hers is soft pastry, his a firm baguette. He fantasizes about fucking her while kneading pizza dough. The film links wage labour, social reproduction, and sexual desire, so that there is no neat separation between Boni’s precarious work as a baker and the enactment of his sexual fantasies. In his fantasies, Boni is in control. Boni’s heterosexuality is simultaneously conventional and weird; displaying the absurdity of the normal. We are watching Boni desiring his neighbour, and hear him read from his hyperbolic yet very conventional diary entries, the boring fantasies of domination of any heterosexual boy. 

At the same time, Boni himself becomes an object of desire as we can see from the salacious way the camera sweeps over his body as he is masturbating. As is even clearer in Denis’ follow-up film, the 1999 masterpiece Beau Travail, the modern hegemonic form of masculinity entails the objectification of the male body, enacted through homosocial rituals, while at the same time excluding homoeroticism. In Beau Travail, these rituals imitate work, as a typically masculine activity, but seem more like a beautiful spectacle – a dance to display the masculine capacities of the body. Here, Colin plays the young soldier Gilles Sentain, who is the object of both homosocial rivalry and homoerotic desire. The protagonist of Beau Travail, Sentain’s superior officer, tries to kill that young, idealised body out of desire and jealousy – wanting both to have and to be Sentain. 

In Nénette et Boni, a similar paradoxical relation structures the narrative. While starting with Boni’s homosociality and aggressive heterosexuality, the film narrates Boni drifting along in an almost feminised passivity. He never acts out his violent fantasies. Instead, they emerge as a ritualised, scripted performance of masculinity. In fact, when the baker’s wife asks him to have coffee with her, flirtily talking about pheromones, Boni is taciturn, pensive. When she asks him his name, he murmurs ‘Boniface,’ and then he is silent. What has changed is his newfound desire to form a bond with his sister’s unborn child.

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Nénette arrives pregnant at her childhood home, now occupied by her brother, his friends, and a pet rabbit. While Nénette is disgusted by the possibility of being a mother, Boni is increasingly invested in the child, almost obsessed with the possibility of a baby. His interest in the woman from the bakery fades. He forces his sister to look at the ultrasound images of the fetus, and makes space in his house for the baby. He goes on to ‘save’ Nénette after she passes out in the bathtub during an attempt to abort the fetus. Nénette, however, wants nothing to do with the baby. She decides to give it up for adoption, refusing to look at it after it is born. Unwilling to give up on the child, Boni goes to extremes. In a scene that spectacularly, hilariously, parodies hypermasculine action films, Boni arrives at the maternity ward with a rifle hidden in a bunch of flowers – an image which mixes the codes of femininity with those of violent masculinity. He then forces a nurse to hand him his nephew, and marches off carrying the baby and the gun. In a closing scene, he softly pats his nephew to sleep, suddenly far removed from the macho violence of the kidnapping. As in Beau Travail, Colin’s performance as Boni is built around sudden shifts in gendered presentation, displaying the instability of masculinity and disavowed moments of care and intimacy. Nénette sits alone, happy at having successfully exited her ‘maternal responsibility.’

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Part of me worries that Boni will be a terrible adoptive parent. His life is disorganised, and his ability to care for his pet rabbit is questionable. Yet it is difficult not to be swayed by his love for the newborn child. This passion is structured around a ‘biological’ family relation, but it is not a naturalised or normative one. The feeling that a wayward young man such as Boni could never make a proper parent subtly undermines any assumptions of propriety. In fact, it is suggested that the child ‘properly’ belongs with the intended adoptive parents, whom we never see. The fact that the baby is kidnapped at gunpoint also serves to undermine any ideas about proper parenthood, as it goes against all understandings of how one becomes a parent. In the closing scene, I half expected police to come banging at the door at any moment, but we are left with the image of domestic bliss, both familiar and strange. The image of the young man, whom we have just seen using violent threats, suddenly so tender and caring, confounds normative expectations of masculinity. The future of this frail family arrangement is unsure, but Boni, Nénette, and the baby all seem content. 

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In Shoplifters, the family already is established when we enter the narrative. Unlike Boni’s wayward group of friends, there is a mother (Nobuyo), father (Osamu), son (Shota), aunt (Aki), and grandma (Hatsue). They are poor, and Osamu, Nobuyo, and Aki are precariously employed in construction, a laundry, and sex work respectively, but they nonetheless seem to be a fairly normative household. Slowly, however, we learn that this is far from a conventional family. No one is actually related by blood or legal ties. Instead, the film reveals that they are bound together by economic necessity, but also by a deep sense of solidarity and mutual protection. The narrative starts as Osamu and Shota find a four-year-old girl outside in the cold. They decide to bring her to their small house. The girl, Yuri, has scars from abuse and seems unwilling to go home. Initially the adults worry that allowing Yuri to stay would seem like a kidnapping, but no one comes looking for her. Only after two months does she appear on the news, as a missing child. At that time, her new family decides it is too late to send her back. Instead, she is given a new name, new clothes, a new haircut. Through a baptism of sorts, where family members discusses potential names as they cut her hair, she is renamed Lin. Nobuyo, who was initially reluctant to take in the girl, is pleased when Lin chooses to stay. Chosen family, she tells Hatsue, means the bond is stronger. The construction of family in Shoplifters is similar to Shulamith Firestone’s notion of the household as voluntary association, in which members are allowed to enter and exit according to their wishes. This, Firestone suggested, is a necessary condition for liberating women and children from the violence of nuclear families, as well as women’s exploited labour of social and biological reproduction.

Unlike Nénette, Nobuyo is not rejecting the work of care, yet she is uninterested in motherhood as a biological, natural relation. Nobuyo affirms her comradely relation to Lin through their shared injuries and histories of abuse. They both have burn marks from irons on their arms, the woman from her work at the laundry, the child from parental abuse. The workplace injury leaves the same marks as the signs of familial violence. The violence of the workplace and the family are linked, and burned into the flesh. It turns out that Osamu and Nobuyo have killed her abusive former husband in self-defence. She is thus familiar with the justifications of familial abuse – as she tells Lin: ‘if they say they hit you because they love you, that’s a lie.’ She points to how biological family operates as a justification for abuse, by appearing as a natural site of love. Even violence can become a sign of such love. Shoplifters questions the value of those bonds that are supposedly built on care but in reality are all but loving. Those bonds, the film insists, are not only bad in themselves but also serve to make other constructions of caring relations illegible and illegitimate. When family becomes synonymous with care, not only does familial abuse disappear but other forms of solidarity are literally outlawed. The family, Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh have remarked, monopolizes care in a way that is designed to produce a lack of care outside of it. Shoplifters shows how this monopoly is shored up by the state’s monopoly on violence, which penalizes forms of care exceeds the bonds of what is recognizable as familial.

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After the arrest of Nobuyo and Osamu, the police are trying to understand why they took Lin into their care. They are seemingly only able to explain this through the presumption of Nobuyo’s natural desire for motherhood, while at the same time declaring that she could not possibly be a proper caretaker for Lin, as only biological mothers can satisfy the emotional needs of children. ‘Children need their mothers,’ a police officer argues. ‘That’s just what mothers tell themselves,’ Nobuyo retorts. The cops insist on understanding the reasoning for adopting Lin through normative ideals of gender and parenthood, while Nobuyo keeps questioning them. ‘Giving birth automatically makes you a mother?’ she asks. ‘You can’t become a mother unless you do’ claims the police officer, who ends up returning Lin to her biological parents. Here, the authorities insist on conflating the desire to help a child with the gendered desire to become a mother. Throughout the film, however, Nobuyo cares little for the title of ‘mother,’ whereas Osamu is constantly using traditional familial terms, in particular trying to get Shota to refer to him as ‘dad.’ The boy is reluctant to do so until the last scene, in which the precarious life of the family has been destroyed by police intervention and he is left without care. Contrary to the authorities’ expectations, Osamu displays a much stronger desire for normative family than does Nobuyo, who seems more invested in forms of care that are precisely not regulated by the law or notions of blood ties. 

Despite all signs that Lin was better off with her chosen family, Nobuyo ends up going to prison for kidnapping her, because it’s not legal to adopt a child without the state’s permission. Nor is it legal to terminate a pregnancy in the seventh month, as Nénette tries to do. It is however quasi-legal to use violence against one’s own children, insofar as the state does not really care what goes on in the private household, as long as it can maintain a respectable exterior. The last act of Shoplifters, after the arrest of Nobuyo and Osamu, dwells on how the state devastates the forms of care it has rendered illegible. The state does not recognize their comradely relations based on solidarity. Even when those relations appear relatively conventional, they are criminalized and pathologised by the authorities. In the end, Shota is placed in an orphanage, Nobuyo is sentenced to prison, Lin is returned to her abusive parents, and Osamu is shown living alone in a tiny flat. 

While Nénette and Boni is focused on seemingly heterosexual modes of desire and reproduction,  the film depicts relations that are at least partially outside of heterosexuality understood as a social institution. The arrangements of care that the film depicts lack the ideological and material forms of support that normative heterosexuality is afforded. While the film portrays a relationship between brother and sister, and later between uncle and nephew, these bonds are excluded from the status of a nuclear family due to the absence of parent-child relationships. Nénette and Boni’s father is desperate to renew his relationship with his estranged children, but they are both dismissive. When he is later killed in a shooting, this has seemingly no importance in their lives. Their father’s death is not acknowledged by Nénette and Boni, thus undermining the centrality of patrilineality for social reproduction, and emphasizing freely chosen care as an alternative.

The question of criminalization becomes important as it renders the family in Shoplifters even more illegible as a ‘real’ family. The family bonds of the bourgeoisie have acted as a model for other family types under capitalism, and working class families have been the objects of state intervention because of their failure to live up to such norms. This is especially true for those families who survive through informal and ‘criminal’ means. In a world where migration, shoplifting, and sex work is criminalized, many families and other arrangements of care are split up. As indicated by the title of Shoplifters, both films portray a criminalised, informal economy. Boni and his friends have a relaxed attitude to formal work – Boni tells Nénette that he only works when he feels like it. The characters in Shoplifters are increasingly destitute as both Osamu and Nobuyo lose their jobs. To survive without a wage, the characters of both films engage in the sale of stolen goods, a form of reproduction that simultaneously bypasses and depends upon the production of commodities and its attendant wage relations. Stolen fishing rods appear in both films, evoking a leisurely lifestyle out of reach for their characters. This economic precarity is directly connected to the family form, as their informal and extra-legal labour adds to their illegitimacy from the perspective of the state, and thus their illegitimacy as adoptive parents. In a way, it is the shoplifting that turns them into kidnappers. In Boni’s case, the lack of stability and recognisable responsibility makes him illegible as a potential caring figure for his nephew.

These films explore how surplus populations – those who live at the margins of the formal economy – organise reproduction beyond the wage, the state, and beyond the family as usually imagine it. They allow us to recognize how the state intervenes in social reproduction through the regularisation of family and the criminalization of certain forms of reproduction. Informal adoption falls outside the scope of the legal, and formal adoption is only accessible to people of a certain class and recognizable family relations. Through criminalisation, the state seeks not so much to protect children but to organise reproduction in ways that can be controlled. In deviating from these prescribed forms of reproduction, the characters of Shoplifters and Nénette et Boni do not only challenge the legal construction of family, but also normative gender and heterosexuality. Gender is revealed as dependent on certain forms of reproduction, where men’s desire for parenthood and women’s lack of desire for motherhood both challenge the construction of normative gender. As Cathy Cohen has suggested, outside the material and institutional support of normative heterosexual reproduction, many subjects are already queered even when engaging in heterosex. Similarly, while to some extent participating in an economy of gender, Nobuyo, Osamu, Nénette and Boni all become increasingly ungendered as the narratives progress. Even while pregnant, Nénette’s refusal to perform a desire for motherhood unsettles her femininity. Conversely, her brother’s desire to care for a child, especially a child that is not ‘his,’ serves to undermine the heterosexual masculinity that he performed earlier in the film. Shoplifters explores how investment in the relationality of family is placed on the side of the feminine despite Nobuyo’s explicit valuation of informal and non-biological forms of care. Her relationships with Lin and Shota are not imitations of biological motherhood, rather they gesture towards forms of relationality that extend beyond the care scarcity and violence of nuclear familyhood. For this, she is sentenced to five years in prison. Sometimes, however, kidnapping is just the name the state gives to the act of caring for those who need care. 

 

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