The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, after devoting the first 20 years of their career to making documentaries, shifted focus in the early 1990s and began making fiction features. In 1996 they announced themselves with La Promesse, a tale of a young boy caught up in human trafficking.
Since then, they have made five more features, each painstakingly written, financed, filmed, edited and released on a nearly metronomic three-year cycle. The return on investment has been extraordinary: Twice they have won Cannes' top prize, the Palme d'Or; twice they have won best screenplay at the same festival; twice their actors have taken the Cannes acting award. Their new film, The Kid With a Bike, claimed a comparatively modest haul at last May's Cannes fest, taking the Grand Prix, the second-most prestigious award.
While I'm grateful for any opportunity to see a film by les Dardennes, this latest makes me wonder if they've become risk-averse. The Dardenne template is a powerful one: Each film features young innocents trapped by socio-economic forces beyond their control in the squalid corners that tourists never see in Belgian cities. A moral dilemma emerges, often involving criminal elements in immigrant society, and a fateful decision must be made. The acting, by amateurs and professionals alike, is always impeccable. The pacing of their scenes and the rhythm of their editing is always faultless. The milieu is always realistic and gritty, but the tone is typically redemptive and quasi-Christian. Their new film carries many elements of their other realist-allegorical films, including Rosetta, L'Enfant and, especially, The Son.
All of this is to explain that while The Kid With a Bike is a well-made and moving film, it feels familiar. And not just reminiscent of the Dardennes' own work, either. The premise is a riff on Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, the Italian classic that evokes both movie nostalgia and the political cinema of the postwar years. In the Dardennes film, the kid with the bike, Cyril, is an intense 11-year-old boy who has been abandoned by his father at an orphanage. Compounding the trauma, the boy's bike is missing. Cyril (played by newcomer Thomas Doret) is certain it has been stolen—he can't believe that his father would have sold it—and he keeps the orphanage staff busy trying to prevent his escapes to search for the bike.
Despite the working-class milieu, the town never feels quite real but like a movie set, and this may be by design. The relationships, too, have a constructed feel, as the Dardennes revisit their perennial theme of ordinary people taking responsibility for the more vulnerable in their midst. The film turns on Cyril's relationship with Samantha (Cécile de France), a rather sentimentally conceived hairdresser in town who inexplicably agrees to foster him. Under her benevolent but firm guidance, Cyril's search for his bike turns into a search for his father, even as he falls under the sway of a local gang leader.
The Dardennes are at their best when their characters confront their own conscience. In this film, such a painful scene occurs when Cyril finally meets his father (Jérémie Renier, coming full circle in his fourth Dardennes film since his child debut in La Promesse). Another face-to-face encounter, but a simmering, ever so slightly sexualized one, occurs in the long and fine mid-film sequence in which the neighborhood punk attempts to seduce Cyril into his petty criminal affairs. In such scenes, the Dardennes show that their brand of realist filmmaking has the power to transcend our normal awareness that we're just watching a film; they make us share, feel and believe in the discomfort of the characters and their thorny predicaments. Although we don't quite see the ending coming, there's an emotional tidiness to it that manages to be both redemptive and unconvincing.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The bicycle waif."