These Belgian filmmakers have a string of rigorous, stringent and wrenchingly powerful movies to their name, including two Cannes Palme d’Or winners (Rosetta and L’enfant); Le fils and Lorna’s Silence.
Former documentarians, they have retained a documentary feel with their use of long, handheld tracking shots, working class subjects, and their reluctance to use a dramatic score.
The Kid with a Bike isn’t a big departure, actually, but it’s fractionally more sentimental and they do intersperse the action with snatches of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto as a kind of entr’acte (a weakness, in my view). Of course these things are relative. The Dardennes’ idea of sentimentality would be most Hollywood moviemakers’ notion of gut-wrenching realism.
Like Le fils, The Kid with a Bike is about a child. Cyril, 12, has had enough of boarding school, he wants to go back to his dad – he’s not an orphan. But all the adults in his life seem to think differently; his dad most of all. Cyril runs away and heads back home, but home isn’t there anymore. The neighbours tell him his dad moved out months ago, and didn’t leave a forwarding address. The boy refuses to believe it – his father wouldn’t just abandon him. And what about his bike?
Chased down by one of his teachers, Cyril runs headlong into a doctor’s office and straight into the arms of one of the patients, Samantha (Cecile de France). He clutches her with such force and need, it triggers an overwhelming compassion in her, a need to reach out and take care of this lost and lonely boy. She tracks down his bike (his father had sold it) and persuades the school to let Cyril visit her on weekends. He’s recalcitrant at first, difficult and suspicious, but he will allow her to take him to see his dad.
Jeremie Regnier, who plays Guy, was last seen trying to sell his baby son in the Dardennes’ L’enfant. He’s no more sympathetic this time out. Guy reckons Cyril was a mistake. He has a new life now, a girlfriend, a job, and let’s face it, Cyril will be better off without him.
The Dardennes have no more interest in Guy than he deserves. What interests them is the patience, love and compassion of Samantha, and whether it could be enough to save Cyril from the wreckage that seems to be his destiny. Some may feel that Cecile de France’s hairdresser is just too good to be true, but it’s not as if she’s not severely tested, even to breaking point. As played by the breathtakingly authentic Thomas Doret, Cyril isn’t a bad kid, but he is badly damaged.
As a parent, I have to say I found The Kid with a Bike almost unbearably tough to watch in places – it’s such a stark reminder of how vulnerable children are, how easily they can fall under influences that are clearly (to adult eyes) malign. Yet the film – like most Dardenne movies – is ultimately animated by the spirit of grace… that what makes it so impossibly moving. If you like Ken Loach’s Kes, you owe it to yourself to see The Kid with a Bike.