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Jean- Pierre and Luc Dardenne are two brothers from Belgium who I like very much. They have been making great films for donkey's years and have a very distinctive style. Generally, their films are minimalistic, have no soundtrack and are naturistic. They describe working class Belgium, family and economic struggles. Maybe not everybody's cup of tea, a bit depressing, I hear you all say. They can be sometimes but films like Rosetta, The Son and The Child have won lots of awards at the Cannes Festival and the new film, The Kid with the Bike, won the Grand Prix Award in 2011, Best Foreign Language Film in 2013 at the Central Ohio Film Critics Association.
The film is in French with English subtitles, at first you may think this is a very simple film but it isn't, it is a powerful, compassionate picture of children and parents, set against the subjugated culture of a modern Europe haunted by the ghosts of a religious past. If you have ever seen Vittorio De Sica's 1948 Italian neo-realist film, Ladri di biciclette (original title) or otherwise called Bicycle Thieves, you will see similarities. Both of these films are about a father, his son, a bike, and a search. Whereas in the Italian film we see a man and his boy searching Rome for a bike, the Dardennes' film is about a kid who finds his bike early on in the film and then rides it around a Belgian city, searching for his lost father.
Let me introduce you to Cyril (Thomas Doret), he's the boy in the film. He's an eleven year old scamp who has strawberry blonde hair accompanied by freckles. He's hard to handle, bites and scratches, runs away from authorities and has 'ants in his pants'. He's representative of an unsettled child. At the beginning of the film we see young Cyril on the phone trying desperately to contact his father (Jérémie Renier) but he can't hear any dial tone. The dramatic one-sidedness of this says everything about the boy's plight: he needs a dad and wants so much to receive his dad's love, but there is no answer on the other end.
We learn that the boy's father recently dropped him off to live in a state home for young boys, promising it would just be for a month. If the truth be known he wants nothing more to do with his son even though he tells Cyril that he wants to start over again. The boy believes him and wishes every day that they will be united again. It's very sad to watch as Cyril pursues his father and yet gradually comes to realise that his father doesn't feel, give in response or show any interest in a relationship. Like every child, Cyril, has a deep need for a parent - for someone to love and look after him. That's the real pursuit of this film.
Along the way, the boy bumps into Samantha (Cécile De France), a kind, hairdresser, in her thirties, who agrees to be his foster parent. She takes him in and loves him for who he is, even if he is a bit of a tyke (he's the kind of kid who turns the water on harder when he has been told to turn it off). For Cyril, Samantha is a stroke of luck; without her seemingly unintentional appearance, his shaky path would have taken him God knows where. The film has many merits including the way it forcefully illustrates how vulnerable children like Cyril often end up with a bad crowd while trying to find a neighbourhood that cares. Samantha is an angel who has arrived to protect Cyril from these things, fighting with him as she tries to stop him leaving the house at night to meet up with a shifty gang leader.
While Samantha seems to be Cyril's guardian angel, she's very much as broken and disadvantaged as Cyril. She needs the boy as much as he needs her, and their timely encounter feels less like destiny than the movement of some larger unseen influence, looking out for the both of them.
Kid with a Bike is a story about both of them. At one point Samantha's boyfriend, cheesed off with her incomprehensible patience with the very naughty Cyril, issues an ultimatum. "It's me or him." Samantha doesn't need to think about her boyfriend's request, she has made her choice and it is Cyril. What motivates her unconditional love for this boy? As with Cyril, we know nothing of Samantha's history. Maybe she lost a child or was kicked out by her own parents when she was young. The only thing we know is what we see, an unbelievable moving pursuit of one human being after another, the former anxiously wanting her love to be received, the latter having a difficult time trusting anyone's affections.
What I love about this film is the way the camera is observational but unobtrusive at the same time. At times you feel like there is no camera and the stark approach puts the focus on the characters and gives it an eerie realism. You get lost in the film as you are drawn into the narrative vignettes of ordinary people in the industrial town of Seraing where most Dardenne films are set. If I am right, I think the Dardenne brothers are from this Belgian town. I think it helps to understand the film more because the narratives are very human and universal. Most of us have felt that 'kick in the stomach' feeling sometime in our lives, when you love someone and they don't love you back.
Kid on a Bike is a little different to other Dardenne films. This one has a soundtrack of sorts. Let's say we hear 60 seconds of Beethoven broken up into a repeated 15-second excerpt from the second movement of his piano concerto No 5 in E flat Major, Adagio un poco mosso of the Emperor Concerto. The occurrence of such music shocked me because it is rarely used in films and it is very evocative. I know it sounds barmy but each time the music came in I felt like some sort of spiritual reality was hovering above, dipping down every now and again to offer liberation. It was as if someone or something wanted to let me know through these rapturous 15 second bursts of Beethoven that all will be well in the end.
In a way the film is a cross between a fairy story and something more spiritual. The fact that the boy wears red in every scene springs to mind Little Red Riding Wolf, lost in the wood. At one point he goes to meet the big bad wolf, a menacing youth who didn't have the presence of a guardian angel like Samantha in his life. This wolf is the pawn to Samantha's doting motherly figure. I also felt that there was something godly out there looking out for Samantha and Cyril. Remember, this is modern Europe, we don't see any churches or hear any religious quotes but something/someone is active in both the lives of Cyril and Samantha. Their paths have been pushed together when they seem to need each other very much, they are being guided through tough times and Cyril is being kept out of all kinds of danger, something we see in the final ending.
If the film begins with the boy trying to contact his father, but receiving no dial tone, it ends with him feeling - perhaps for the first time that someone is there for him, looking out for him. Indeed, this is one of the things Kid with a Bike articulately reminds us: that there is sometimes an ever-present help for us in times of trouble, but it often comes to us in a different way than we expected.
As for the actors they are sensational. Let's take Thomas Doret as the ginger haired kid; his child performance is one of the best I've seen. This isn't some cute kid that you find adorable and want to stroke his hair. You like him, yes, because of his hard character and the way he handles life and is a person rather than a child. The scenes with his father are heart-breaking, it was a relief to see him in some brighter moments and when I thought he was going to get into deep trouble my brain ached with the tension of it all. One remarkable young actor!
Jérémie Renier plays Cyril's dad. He is a regular in Dardenne films, is a born natural. His character studies are so realistic - you believe he is the person he is imitating.
Cecile De France plays Samantha, a terrific actress who has a really expressive face, is natural and always convincing. She won Best Actress for this role in the 2011 European Film Awards.
I saw this film at a little cinema close to my home, it shows a lot of arty films and the admission is cheap. The film lasts for 87 minutes; I was glued to the screen and enjoyed every minute of it, even the harrowing parts. I am a fan so I will watch anything by the Dardenne brothers but if you aren't you might find it a bit slow. I suggest taking the film out as a rental and not paying to see it at a film theatre.
For some reason the film is not rated but I would give it a PG certificate as there is no swearing, no nudity, and no sex! There is a bit of violence but it isn't gratuitous. The film is all about families and parenting.
The subtitles may be difficult to keep up with if you have reading difficulties or are a slow reader.
It gets five stars from me.