The Kid With A Bike
Written and Directed By: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring: Thomas Doret, Cecile de France, Jeremie Renier, and Ego Di Mateo
Director of Photography: Alain Marcoen, Editor: Marie-Helene Dozo, Set Designer: Igor Gabriel
The first thing I noticed in The Kid With A Bike was how far back the camera was. We’re quickly introduced to 10-year-old Cyril, desperately searching for his father. A phone call results in a disconnected number. He escapes the foster home, running on foot, and taking a bus to his father’s old apartment, dodging the guardians after him. But unlike the extremely memorable opening of a film like Rosetta, the Dardenne brothers hold the camera further back and less kinetic than usual. We aren’t given immediate connection with Cyril in this matter, partially because his conflict is only immediate to him, but more importantly because we have to learn to love Cyril as the film’s other protagonist, Samantha, must. And learning to give into such grace and accept with love is many ways the message suggested in The Kid With A Bike.
For those who don't know the Dardenne brothers, their first narrative film Le Promesse premiered at Cannes in 1996, and since then they’ve (deservingly) won a prize for each of their subsequent films. However, some have outrageously claimed their similar aesthetic has become tiring and cumbersome. “Look, another film about suffering in Belgium!” their critics antagonize at them, as if other auteurs have broken so far from their own comfort zone. But to reduce the Dardennes is to reduce the way they have slowly evolved their style, especially from something more unyielding at L’Enfant. Lorna’s Silence took the form of a gangster thriller thrown through the prism of their unflinching eyes. The Kid With A Bike takes the form of a fairy tale in many ways, except there’s nothing of particular miracles on the way, simply moments in which we experience true human empathy.
As if stepping off of the set of a Bresson film, Samantha enters Cyril’s life quite incidentally. While at a clinic searching for his father, Cyril grabs Samantha as he tries to evade the cops. “You can hold on…but not too tightly.” If the French actress Cecile de France (most familiar to American audiences from Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter) had even an ounce of less talent, such a metaphorical line would come off as blatant symbolism for the relationship that follows. But because she and the Dardennes never emphasize life through traditional cinematic means, it reveals Samantha’s genuine empathy for this lost soul.
I did have some reservations when as The Kid With A Bike continued its narrative as Samantha becomes a surrogate parent for Cyril. She was too good, and the absent father (Dardenne regular Jeremie Renier) and a local drug dealer too cookie cutter of villains, as opposed to the shadier grays of previous Dardenne features. But the grayness comes more as we see young Cyril learning to accept the world as it comes to him, simply not smashing against each problem that appears with pure rage. The young Thomas Doret, starring in his first film, has no actorly ticks or even awareness of how the camera should “change” how he naturally acts, giving him a truly naturalistic performance. He's never a true innocent, making his learning feel pure without a since of stodgy narrative crafting. While Samantha may seem perfect and loving in every sense of the word, it is easy to understand why the young child would find the dangerous Wes a potent father figure, or at least one he can relate to.
Aesthetically brighter than other features (the duo shot in the summer, the town itself is brighter too), the Dardennes allow us to gradually enter the story as it becomes more complex than the impossible stakes of other films, and there’s only two moments that really create any shock (but what shocks they are!). When I saw The Kid With A Bike, I was slightly perplexed and confused by its ending, which forces a possible but somewhat improbably situation into Cyril’s life that I didn’t find necessary. I still find it a bit cheap in the way that it happens, though the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize it’s a stunning moment that truly shows how this character has changed from a force of nature to a master of grace. It’s a hopeful ending for Cyril, and one that he most certainly deserves.
And finally there’s the biking! The Dardennes understand movement as an expression, which is why both their characters and their camera never sit still. There’s something sublime about watching the movement of Cyril as he races around the small Belgian town. Is he chasing his dreams or running from his fears? Both in many ways. Movement in the Dardennes, both physical and metaphorical, is true freedom, and the Dardennes, once again, have found the perfect expression of it.