There are few filmmakers that I get as excited about for new productions like I do for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. At the same time, few filmmakers are as far removed from the American (at least) pop-culture consciousness. This is a shame because they are two of the more moral filmmakers working in the medium. Their latest film, The Kid With the Bike (which won the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival), is full of their signature style.
Cyril (captivating newcomer Thomas Doret) is an abandoned boy living in a boys’ home. He desperately wants to find out where his father has gone. When he skips school to search his old apartment, his teacher/guardians give chase, and he bumps into and clings to a random woman, Samantha (the stunning Cecile De France). She takes a liking to Cyril and agrees to keep him on weekends. She also helps him look for his father. Cyril falls in with the wrong crowd and commits a violent act that has deep repercussions for Samantha and himself.
The film is beautifully shot with the camera obsessing over Cyril whenever he’s in the shot. It’s also smoothly edited with a poignant score that helps drive home key moments (Cyril’s epiphanies?) in the film. The parts are superbly acted by everyone, but particularly Doret and De France in the lead roles. Dardenne regulars like Olivier Gourmet and Jeremie Renier return. Once again, the brothers know when to speak (or let their characters speak) and when to hold back. As usual, and unlike so many of their counterparts, they hold back and the experience of watching the events play out is all the more richer for it.
There’s a continuity to the Dardennes work that transcends repeat casting. They are again working in small spaces with both broken and nontraditional families. One wonders if the Cyril/absentee father isn’t a sign of things to come for the story in l’Enfant. The echoes are there beyond Renier’s performances in each film. They’re also working in moral, spiritual, ethical territory again that I find so fertile.
Cyril is desperate for love…particularly the love of his father. Unfortunately, we never hear about his mother. All of his aggression and misbehavior stems from this frustrated pursuit. Yet at the same time, he fails to see the bounteous, grace-filled love that is there in front of him in Samantha’s selflessness and hospitality. Cyril craves male role models so desperately that he falls straight in with the first older male to show him any attention, the town thug known simply as “The Dealer.” When he does a favor for his new role model, things quickly spiral out of control.
One of the many strengths of the Dardenne’s work is their strong sense of ethics and morality. Like few contemporary filmmakers, they consistently present narratives in which choices have deep, consistent, unforseen, yet completely realistic consequences. Such is the case with Cyril. When he eventually encounters the father and son victims of the work he did for The Dealer, the father forgives him, but the son will not. Samantha agrees to pay the father’s restitution demands, and just as we think Cyril is off too easy, the son encounters Cyril and pursues him to seek revenge. In doing so, Cyril is nearly mortally wounded and the victim becomes the violator. Though it is never spoken, it is crystal clear that, in their own ways, both Cyril and his victims have learned deep lessons about violence and how to respond to it. As a result, the Dardenne’s film becomes an important vision for our own violent times.
At the same time, the film is a strong call to consider a marginal(ized) group that often goes unnoticed in our own society, orphans. Samantha’s reaction to and acceptance of Cyril is a model of selfless love that we could all emulate, and it is a strength of the Dardenne’s touch that they never make it sappy. There’s a simplicity to The Kid With a Bike (as to most of the Dardenne’s filmss) that betrays a rich depth that will reward multiple viewings and reflection.