I’ve seen a few of the films made by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne who, for the last 30 years have written, produced and directed their inimitable dramas of ordinary people’s lives in modern Belgium: The Child (L’enfant) made in 2005 was the most recent, but Rosetta (1999) and La Promesse (1996) also stand out in my memory. Their films depict the harsh realities of lives beset by poverty, crime, deprivation and loss. Though never sentimental, a film from the Dardenne brothers always finds hope in the struggle to survive amidst the mundane daily routines life. My memory of these films, too, is that there are usually kids, often furiously pedalling bikes.
The latest film from the Dardennes brothers is The Kid With a Bike, and we went along to FACT to see it the other night. It’s the story of a young boy, deserted by his father, who is left in a children’s home. In a random act of kindness, a local hairdresser agrees to foster him at weekends (she is played by Cécile De France, the first well-known actor to work with the brothers, who usually rely on amateurs or unknowns). Cyril is a tough kid, though, determined to track down his father and the bike that is so precious to him, so it’s far from being an easy ride for Stephanie, the hairdresser. Thomas Doret gives a tremendous performance as the 11-year old, communicating the boy’s fierce persistence as, face screwed up in grim resolution, he pedals his bike and runs through the streets, pounding on doors and windows, never giving up on his quest for recognition and security.
The scene which I think contains the essence of the film’s philosophy is the one where Cyril and Stephanie encounter each other for the first time as Cyril storms into a doctor’s waiting room in the block of flats where he once lived with his father. Pursued by the concierge, he clings so fiercely, so desperately, to Stephanie that he is hurting her. She calmly asks him to ease his grip but still lets him hold on, and in that moment his ferocious need touches something in her. We sense her empathy for the boy’s need, and her quiet determination to stand by him, come what may. Without any hesitation, she sets about locating and regaining ownership of Cyril’s precious bike, and offers to take care of him every weekend.
One of the mysteries and consolations of the movie is that she lets Cyril into her world when most other people wouldn’t. There’s very little self-congratulation about The Kid with a Bike, the way there might if Sandra Bullock were starring in the Hollywood version. The Dardennes view her kindness as if it were a flower sprouting in concrete: rare, endangered, hardy. (Ty Burr, Boston Globe)
The bike is regained through Stephanie’s generosity, but then it’s stolen twice, the second time bringing the boy under the influence of a local drug dealer and leading to Cyril’s involvement in a violent crime. Meanwhile, Cyril’s father proves less tractable: tracked down to his new place of work, he refuses to have anything more to do with his son.
Like all of the Dardennes’ films, The Kid With A Bike is about hope – hope that springs from the connections that individuals forge when the ones they’ve been given desert them. It depicts someone who has the capacity for empathy and a degree of altruism that most of us may not be able to summon. The Dardenne brothers have written:
The moral imagination or the capacity to put oneself in the place of another. That’s a little bit of what our films demand of the spectator.
What makes their approach distinctive is that we are not provided with any back story. Luc Dardenne has said:
We were adamant that the audience would never find out why Samantha is drawn to Cyril. We didn’t want psychological explanations. We didn’t want the past to explain the present. We wanted the audience to think: ‘She is doing this!’ Which is plenty already.
The Dardennes films are distinguished, too, by a gritty realism that is rooted in the area of industrial Wallonia where the brothers were raised. They are from the industrial town of Seraing in eastern Belgium – a place of steel plants and factories. With all their feature films set in this location, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have produced an acclaimed body of work, twice winning the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or (The Kid With A Bike won the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival). They began with a string of politically engaged TV documentaries, all confronting the same issues of working class life and labour. None of these films have ever been seen in this country, yet they are, reputedly, crucial to understanding the Dardennes’ feature films.
Although their social realism may invite comparisons with the work of Ken Loach (in the case of this new film, especially with Kes), the Dardennes’ films don’t imply socio-political issues external to the lives of their characters in the more overt manner of Loach. As several critics have observed, their approach is closer to that of Robert Bresson in films such as Balthasar or Mouchette, with their stories that concern the struggle to live, survive and forgive, through which some kind of redemption is achieved.
As Roger Ebert has noted in his review of the film:
The Child and The Son. Over and over, their subjects are parents, children, alienation, rebellion. But the Dardennes love these characters and do not blame them. They attend to their pain. They find goodness and share happiness. The most mysterious character in The Kid With a Bike is not the kid, who after all, has a story it’s fairly easy to understand. It is the hairdresser, played by Cecille De France with her sad beauty. This actress carries lifetimes in her eyes.
There is a moment here when she is forced to make a choice, and as she makes it, she reveals so much about how she got to this place in life. ‘Why did you let me come here?’ Cyril asks her. She says she doesn’t know. As she makes her choice, we sense that she knows very well.
Apart from this being the first film in which the Dardennes have employed the services of a star actor (Cecille De France does, though, hail from the same region of Belgium), it is also the first in which they employ music on the soundtrack. Every so often, a passage from Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto surges up as Cyril rides his bike. While the brothers have said that they decided that music, at certain points, could act like a calming caress for Cyril, it seemed to me that the music marks critical points after Cyril has endured some particular trial.
In the final shot, after Cyril has survived one more brush with catastrophe, he rides away on his bike. But this time, you realise, he’s not riding away from hurt or rejection; this time, he’s pedalling furiously back to the one person who has been steadfast in her commitment to him, and whose unconditional love for him he now recognises.