Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne return to heartbreaking form with The Kid With A Bike with a little boy lost looking for love with all the kinetic anxiety he can muster.
The Boy With The Thorn In His Side by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Joint winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes last year with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, The Kid With A Bike sets a new tone in the Dardenne brothers’ oeuvre. Whilst inhabiting the same Belgian underworld of hopeless criminality and grey fatalism, Le Gamin Au Vélo has an altogether sunnier tint. Filmed during the summer, The Kid With a Bike breaks away from the grayscale and with brief musical accompaniments, there’s even a dramatic fictionality to Luc and Jean-Pierre’s not-quite-so-crushing realism.
The Kid With A Bike recounts the story of Cyril, a young teenager deposited in a home by his feckless father after the death of his grandmother. And while the film’s first third follows Cyril’s feverish search for his lost bike and his gradual coming to terms with his father’s utter disinterest, played with grubby cowardliness by Jérémie Renier, the rest of Le Gamin Au Vélo relates the relationship between Samantha, an estate hairdresser marvellously embodied by Belgian-born actress Cécile de France, and Cyril. Thomas Doret is outstanding as the young boy desperate to track down his mountain bike and racing through schools, streets and squares with an indefatigable persistence.
Rebounding from one person to the next in his frantic search, Cyril’s illusions are slowly shattered as he is forced to confront the truth of his father’s betrayal, who not only sold his son’s beloved bike but purposefully tried to lose him by moving house and getting rid of his mobile. At first, it seems like all that matters to Cyril is his bike, but it soon becomes clear that this very material desire hides a more emotional need for love and affection, and if not from his father then from someone else. His desperation all the more apparent when his father fails to turn up in the town square where Samantha had arranged them to meet, he runs round the streets like a wild animal, unable to control his anxiety except through expending his nervous energy.
Cyril is violent, stubborn, disobedient and rude. And while we begin to understand the neglected nugget of goodness hidden deep within, Samantha’s motivations are never clear. It’s to Cécile de France’s credit that she’s able to make her hairdresser with a heart so credible with just a smile and a gesture. It’s tempting to believe it’s a spontaneous desire to help, or an unspoken desire to love unconditionally, but like with Olivier’s character in Le Fils, there’s an absolute refusal on behalf of the Dardenne brothers to explain.
Similarly inexplicable, yet perhaps more crucial to the plot, is Cyril’s falling in with the wrong crowd. It’s perhaps the young lad’s protective shell of violence or impaired moral judgment that lead him to attack a bookshop owner and his son with a baseball bat in order to impress Wes, the local dealer looking to make a quick and blame-free buck. Or maybe Cyril’s looking for a friend, or even a father figure. But it’s an almost wanton drive towards criminality that serves the film’s narrative arc of redemption all the better.
Cyril’s swerve towards petty crime is intended to test his relationship with Samantha to the limits, cutting her on the arm during a scrap with a pair of trimming scissors and saddling her with a 20-month fine. Even when Cyril insults her boyfriend Gilles and the latter issues her with an “It’s either him or me” ultimatum, Samantha selflessly and resolutely chooses Cyril, a test of loyalty that he respects more than even he realises. His transformation is marked by a long travelling shot of Cyril riding his bike, and it’s not long before he and Samantha are going for picnics, bike rides and picnics – a reformed character. But for the Dardenne brothers it’s not enough – the bookseller’s son still harbours a grudge against Cyril, and it’s a moral, cosmic debt that must be paid.
And so, when Cyril runs into him at a petrol station, he’s pushed off his bike, chased up a tree and knocked out cold with a stone. Thinking him dead, father and son decide to conceal their crime, removing the blood-soaked evidence and getting their story straight before calling an ambulance. Finally, Cyril gets up and cycles off, refusing both an ambulance or revenge. It’s the closest a naturalist film can come to a double ending – the possibility of Cyril’s death an echo of the Dardenne brothers’ earlier nihilism, and now outshone by a less grey, if not exactly sunny, outcome. And in showing the easy transition from the victim to the perpetrator of a crime, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne aim to show the universality of bad moral choices and the importance of forgiveness. It’s a recurring theme for the Dardenne brothers, but this time with a heartening warmth that lingers in the soul like an August evening.
The Kid With A Bike is released on 23rd March 2012 in the UK