by Michael Koresky
The Kid with a Bike
Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, IFC Films/Sundance Selects
It’s clear now from their six fiction features that whatever the Dardenne brothers point their camera at becomes, for that moment, the most interesting thing in the universe. This is a rare talent; only a handful of similarly gifted living directors come to my mind—Claire Denis, for sure—through whose eyes, and by the simplest, most natural means, the world becomes beautiful, even set against agonizing tumult. This is because in fixating on the world’s traumas they see the possibility for minor daily redemptions. The Dardennes, in particular, are preternaturally adept at locating the beauty in bustle, and the solace amidst struggle. As fixated on the physical as their earlier Rosetta and L’Enfant, The Kid with a Bike, the Dardennes’ latest action film, is concerned with the tireless movements of twelve-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret), a protagonist who courts our sympathy and tries our patience in equal, exhilarating measure.
This angry boy—abandoned by his single father and put in the care of a foster service in the directors’ desired urban location of Liège—might remind some viewers of poor François from Maurice Pialat’s devastating 1968 drama L’enfance nue, who was left shuttling between foster homes that didn’t know what to do with his erratic behavior. Yet while the Dardennes have stated that film as an influence, The Kid with a Bike follows its main character, fervently, while L’enfance nue observes, soberly. Their camera transforms a child who in other directors’ hands could have been any other tow-headed snub-nosed pre-teen scamp into the rugged, hardy star of his own intense, challenging narrative. It’s no surprise that the Belgian brothers have wrangled from their prepubescent actor a performance of astonishing simplicity and depth, but special notice must be made for Doret. With his freckly insolence and fixed, birdlike stare, always directed up, his neck craned towards the bitterly confusing adult world, he is a heartrending antihero: the cards dealt him have made him his own worst enemy, and through judicious image-making, the Dardennes have imbued his every darting glance and sudden stir with that knowledge.
The filmmakers are so often praised for their visual alertness that their use of sound is often not a topic of conversation; yet The Kid with a Bike begins with a telling bit of aural juxtaposition that sets the film in furious motion. Over the opening credits we hear the sounds of children playing, clearly in some sort of courtyard or open outdoor space, from the telltale distant echoes and squeaks of pavement. Yet when the image finally bursts onto the screen, we are shown Cyril, inside, clutching a telephone, frantically trying to get hold of his father. It’s the perfect, subtle expression of Cyril’s isolation—from other children and also from his own joys, his own abilities to just be a child. We will never see Cyril simply playing. Instead, we witness him growing up too fast, coming face to face with disillusion time and again. For their part, the Dardennes want to save this boy, arbitrarily fictional though he may be. It’s a noble enough reason to make a movie.
Upon racing back to the apartment where he once lived, Cyril is told his father moved out a month ago. The child refuses to believe anything until—and even after—he sees it with his own eyes. Thus the film’s first third concerns Cyril’s efforts to track down his dad, for surely he must want to see his son, regardless of his sudden relocation. Aiding him in his efforts is openhearted hairdresser Samantha (Cécile De France), whose interest in Cyril is first piqued when the boy, in trying to escape from his social workers, grabs her around the waist with such driven force that he literally pulls her off a chair and onto the floor. We don’t first see De France’s face until she falls into frame—everyone in the Dardennes’ films seem to tumble into our line of sight. We get the sense that they were always there, trying to live; we just happen to be privileged to run into them at one point or another.
Samantha tracks down the boy’s missing bike and buys it back for him (upon hearing this he immediately bounds out of bed and, in one seeming movement, changes shirt and shoes, not stopping to speak—he’s all action); soon he asks her if he can stay with her on weekends. This would seem to join the two at the hip immediately, but the Dardennes are not interested in making the kid into a loveable tyke whose heart melts at the first act of kindness. The evolution of their relationship is a difficult birth charted through most of the film, one that damages Samantha’s own romantic relationship and encompasses at least one knockdown, drag-out fight. Cécile de France is unexpected in the role—not only for her luminosity but also for the lack of pretense in all her actions. The Dardennes said that they gave her no motivation for her character, i.e., why she would even want to pseudo-adopt the boy in the first place. The result is not an actress who looks unmoored from her part but a character who seems like she’s always searching for her own reasons and self-justifications, one who’s creating her own narrative as it’s seemingly spontaneously unspooling onscreen.
De France’s formidable look (she’s all sharp teeth and bulging biceps) is a perfect match for Doret’s aggressiveness—one feels like any given actor in a Dardenne movie requires the unselfconscious bearing of a wrestler. Douret bites, kicks, and throws other people to the ground, peers and adults; in one nerve-wracking moment he jumps from a carnival ride as it’s about to ascend. Clearly this child is just one bad encounter away from becoming a real rotter—the possibility of this actualized when a local gang leader, admiring his scrappiness, begins to court him, eventually roping him into a dangerous mission. This is where The Kid with a Bike begins to attain a moral inquisitiveness attuned to ideas of forgiveness that can only exist outside the law; and the film builds to a heart-in-throat moment comparable to the Dardennes’ other climaxes but which also slightly complicates their turnabout redemptions, questioning the fine line between aggression and victimhood in this too-human world.
Since, apart from some subtle queues in Lorna’s Silence, the Dardennes have refrained from musical accompaniment in the past, their choice to use the first few bars of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor) as a recurring theme for Cyril’s quieter moments (the first time when he’s asleep in bed; the last when he’s racing through the streets on his bike away from a particularly traumatic interaction) may be indicative of a special affection they have for the poor kid (they've indicated as much in interviews). It’s a marked contrast to the loud music blaring from the CD player in the restaurant kitchen where he first finds his father, played, in the film’s other great performance, by Dardenne regular Jérémie Rénier, whose self-loathing at being emotionally unable to care for his child shows in his every implosive movement. As with all of the actors, there’s a natural musicality to his body language. With such gorgeously human melodies onscreen, emphasis from Beethoven might seem redundant. But the concerto’s refrain is a welcome blanket of sorts, a temporarily buffer against the world’s ever increasing disappointments. It’s a gift to him, just as these endlessly generous filmmakers are a gift to us.