Belgians the Dardenne brothers are in an elite group, their two wins of the Cannes Palme d’Or places them in a rare set of six, alongside such esteemed company as Francis Ford Coppola and Emir Kustricia. Their latest film, The Kid With A Bike, was in competition this year, missing out on the main prize but bringing Luc and Jean-Pierre the second most prestigious award, the Grand Prix.
The kid of the title is Cyril, played by Thomas Doret, and is the protagonist of this familiar Dardenne set-up. We first see him attempting to ring his estranged father and, when that fails, Cyril flees his foster home in attempt to track him down in person. It’s after this first attempted break-out that we meet Samantha. A local hairdresser and witness to Cyril’s outburst, she visits the foster home to return a bike she overheard him complaining had been stolen. Despite being initially unresponsive to Samantha, refusing to believe that his Dad would possibly sell his beloved bike, he is soon eager to impress her, demanding she watch his various bike tricks before asking if he can stay with her at weekends. She accepts, presumably out of a Good Samaritan nature confusing to her boyfriend and later Cyril himself who asks her why she took him in, “I don’t know” comes the response.
Her patience is quickly and repeatedly tested by her new house guest, whose outbursts take an increasingly violent tone, scratching and hitting his own face after his Dad admits he won’t call him, and escalates to stabbing Samantha in the arm when she prevents him from going out. When he strikes up a friendship with local dealer Wes, bonding over video games and nicknames, we are aware of the likely outcome and proved correct when the impressionable Cyril (or ‘Pitbull’ to Wes) is recruited for a violent mugging. This all becomes too much for her partner Giles who ill-advisedly gives Samantha a ‘him or me’ ultimatum, surprisingly finding her answer to be him. Her faith is bruised but not beaten and the two reconcile with Samantha taking Cyril back in.
The path seldom strays far from familiar Dardenne territory, the setting is again the French speaking area of Belgium Seraing, the style of no frills realism and collaborations with cinematographer Alain Marcoen and actor Jeremie Renier are all nothing new. However, there are glimpses of lighter touches surrounding the film, subtly adjusting the tone and setting it apart from previous works. During pre-production, the brothers spoke of creating a fairytale like story; one of innocence betrayed and befriended and the saving of a young boy, going some way to explain why the setting takes on a less aggressive, more suburban feel with the handheld cameras moving freely and, for the first time in a Dardenne film, music is used. Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto appears three times during the film, something the brothers thought long and hard about before deciding it could act as a calming caress for Cyril and neatly introduces different stages in film.
Despite these touches and the use of a new breakout Hollywood actress (Cecile de France playing Samantha recently starred in Clint Eastwoods Hereafter and is threatening bigger things) the film is never reduced to fluffy moments or cheap sentimentality. The intensely naturalistic approach to writing and directing ensures that characters’ dialogue reflects real conversations and at no point are we offered a character breakdown or explanation nudging us towards an emotion. Doret is superb in the lead role, shining above other fine performances from more experienced cast members, disproving the ‘animals and kids’ rule by simply being a child in among this adult world the Belgian brothers have created, one that strongly continues their rich vein of form.
Release Date UK: 23 March 2012
Directed: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Cast: Thomas Doret, Cécile De France , Jérémie Renier