Alex: Aaron and I are great fans of the filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Their 2002 film Le Fils was, according to the wisdom of the Ira voting body, the #1 film of the 2000’s. (Although I didn’t have it on my personal list, but I’ll bitch about that later.)
Their newest is The Kid with a Bike, and it’s great. The Dardennes’ films are characterized by a realism that is extraordinarily lucid. Most of their camera is hand-held (well, steadicam, which isn’t literally hand-held, but the effect is similar), scoring is minimal (often absent), and their scripts almost never stop to give us backstory.
The Kid with a Bike begins with the titular boy, Cyril, about 10 or 11, starting to come to grips with the fact that he’s been abandoned by his father. Why that has happened now, or why the mother isn’t in the picture, we never learn. The boy eventually comes under the protection and shelter of a hairdresser (Cecile de France, a.k.a. the Future Mrs. Aaron Rich), but who she was before the action of the movie we never learn. This seems key to the Dardennes method: It’s all about what’s right in front of you, without embellishment or elaboration. The camera observes without judging, and it usually does so at eye level of the main character — especially remarkable in this movie, whose central point of view is that of a child. (By the way, we meet his deadbeat father about a third of the way through the movie. It’s a great, brief performance by Jérémie Renier, the Dardennes’ stalwart: Renier himself was a boy in their earliest films.)
Like many of the Dardennes’ male protagonists, Cyril finds his way to the fringes of society. These characters aren’t misfits, exactly, but semi-fits, and they have complex relationships with the societal institutions (orphanages, courts, police departments) whose benevolence is meant to keep them from drifting. If they’re quasi-outlaws — and Cyril gets involved in some petty crime — they don’t exactly surrender the laws’ protection. It’s more like they can’t escape it.
For me, the real treatise on all this is their 2006 masterpiece L’Enfant (in which Renier plays the flawed hero), which should have been the Dardennes film that topped the Iroids’ best-of-the-decade list. After all, it won several Iras (best picture, director, screenplay) the year it came out, where Le Fils didn’t win any. How the latter emerged triumphant, I still don’t know.
But anyway. The new movie is excellent.
Aaron: Well, I can’t really disagree with anything you say about The Kid with a Bike, though I don’t agree with you about L’Enfant (which I think is less strong than you do… though “less strong” for the Dardennes is top-notch for just about anyone else). But let’s leave that disagreement because picking up on that other film is very important to understanding this one. This is an excellent film.
I like what you say about characters having complex relationships with societal institutions, because that’s a classic trope and falls in easily with why I like this film so much. It’s essentially a neorealist (or neo-neorealist) fairy tale, as impossible as that is. Cyril is the damsel in distress and Samantha is his knight in shining armor (gender roles switched due to age and neorealist intrigue). As close to the ground as the story is, it does float along on a rather moralistic and uncanny thread. What’s great is that, because their films work in such a harsh, thankless world, the magic here is particularly relatable and seems normal.
But this is also a movie about their other movies, with tons of references to earlier works and earlier moments. Cyril seems like Bruno (Jérémie Renier) from their 1996 film La Promesse, Francis from Le Fils or Rosetta from their 1999 (and sadly not on DVD) Rosetta. The fact that Cyril is rejected by his father is reminiscent of L’Enfant or Le Fils. Even deeper, you could read this as the continuation of the Bruno story, with L’Enfant as a mid-point (imagine Bruno grows up, has a baby, tries to abandon it and then the kids ends up in the orphanage system). I strongly believe that as wonderful as The Kid with a Bike is, it could be appreciated more with a stronger knowledge of the Dardennes’ oeuvre.
Finally, I think it’s interesting how much more open and free this film feels with the many shots of Cyril riding his bike around the town. Yes, we’ve seen lots of Steadicam shots of characters walking around before (in Le Fils, in particular), but never anything as high-flying and exuberant as this. Perhaps this is their happiest film, which might have something to do with it being a fairy tale.
I think what I love about the Dardennes so much is that their films are efficient, powerful and short. They don’t try to make complicated epics (Lorna’s Silence is probably their weakest because it tries to do too much and is too long), but simple and sweet short stories.