It's perhaps fitting, given the frequent comparisons made between the works of master filmmaking duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and those of the post-war Italian neo-realism movement, that the brothers’ latest picture should begin with a character's determinedly single-minded attempt to recover a lost bike. With their docu-styled approach to camera technique and an abundance of non-judgmental humanism in the depiction of their protagonists, it’s easy to see why such parallels are drawn to that most socially conscious period in world cinema. That said, there are plenty of filmmakers out there to whom one could draw such favourable comparisons, a director like Ken Loach being perhaps the most prominent example, but it’s the Dardennes’ absolute mastery of cinematic technique that sets them apart from the crowd. Displaying a ruthless narrative and visual economy that puts many another director to shame, their films offer some of the leanest examples of cinematic efficiency, ensuring that not a frame goes to waste, conveying in a single image or gesture what lesser talents would require paragraphs of exposition to express.
Whilst The Kid with a Bike retains consistency with their previous features, astutely establishing through character its three-act dramatic trajectory with surgical precision, it represents an incremental sidestep away from the post-neorealist rigidity of their earliest features towards something more subtly archetypical, a modern-day fairy tale of sorts. Refusing to believe that his father has abandoned him to the care of a children’s home and sold his beloved bike, eleven year old Cyril (Thomas Doret) escapes in an effort to track him down. When his counsellors catch up with him at his father’s apartment block, Cyril dives into a doctor’s surgery within the building, knocking hairdresser Samantha (Cecile de France) to the ground and clinging on to her for dear life. Assuming the role of fairy godmother, Samantha tracks down Cyril’s bike, buying it back from the neighbour to whom his father sold it, and agrees to look after him at weekends. It’s a relationship fraught with tension, and as Cyril’s abandonment issues are exacerbated by his father’s disinterest, Samantha has her work cut out keeping him out of trouble, and away from local gang leader Wes (Egon di Mateo), a teenage Fagin figure and Big Bad Wolf who hangs out in the nearby woods.
For all the fairy tale allusions however, for once there’s nothing grim(m) in the brothers’ depiction of a sun-kissed Saraing, a world away from the grey skies of say Rosetta (1999). In fact, much of the film is awash with bright swathes of colour; from the primary coloured walls of the orphanage to Cyril’s red (riding hood?) sweater, it’s not just the summer skies which make this their warmest film yet. Not that The Kid with a Bike is all sweetness and light, as the threat of danger simmering under the surface punctures Cyril’s progress with Samantha with moments of heart-stopping violence, it cuts to the bone as a result of the carefully built investment in his fate, a constant sense of space and movement within the frame making such punctuation when it comes ferociously tactile.
The Dardennes have always shown rather explained their protagonists, presenting them through action rather than description, and once again the performances here are more than up to the task. Thomas Doret is outstanding as Cyril, a wound-up ball of focussed energy from the start, relentless in the pursuit of his father from the opening scene, doggedly re-dialling a disconnected number in an attempt to reach him. Nicknamed Pitbull by Wes, he switches in an instant between sadness and fury, running or pedalling furiously over and through every physical and emotional obstacle in his path. The casting of a star in the role of Samantha serves to highlight the sense of security and familiarity that Cyril immediately connects and holds on to, the use Jérémie Renier in the role of his father evoking cyclical behavioural patterns handed down through generations, playing as he did a similarly head-strong child for the Dardennes in La Promesse (1996) and another fearful father in L’Enfant (2005).
Their new-found stylistic experiments are most keenly felt in the use of brief snatches of non-diegetic music (here Beethoven), which began (albeit momentarily) with their previous feature The Silence of Lorna (2008); they perhaps serve to over-illustrate what is already remarkably apparent, but it’s a very minor complaint in a film otherwise brimming with emotional truth and compassion. The Dardennes remain on shattering form, making the best of the competition look bloated and lazy in comparison, and with The Kid with a Bike they deliver a picture that even boasts a cautiously happy ending; one that’s by no means easy or presumptuous but certainly one that shines in granting permission to make room for hope.
The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) – 2011 – Belgium, France, Italy – 87 mins – Dir : Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne - (A-)
The Kid with a Bike screens at the London Film Festival on 21st & 23rd October and goes on general release in 2012.