A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2011)

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have said that they were influenced by fairytales when they wrote and directed The Kid With a Bike. Like the Grimm brothers, the Dardenne brothers don't bother giving the backstories of the "good" and "bad" characters in the film. We don't ask how the wicked stepmothers in fairytales got to be so wicked or why the fairy godmothers are so good. In a similar fashion, we are never told what causes Guy Catoul (Jérémie Renier) to be so coldly abrupt in cutting his own son, Cyril (Thomas Doret), out of his life, to the point that he sells the boy's beloved bicycle and puts him into a group home. He provides an economic motive -- he can't afford to support the boy -- but refuses even to make contact with him. Nor do we learn what makes Samantha (Cécile de France) so willing not only to buy the boy's bike from the man Catoul sold it to but also to take the boy himself into her own life. After all, her first encounter with the enraged, belligerent child is in the waiting room of a clinic, where he clings to her for help as the attendants from the group home try to subdue him. She seems to have a settled life as a beautician with a handsome boyfriend. Why borrow such obvious trouble? I felt another literary influence at work in the film: Charles Dickens, who set his tales of rescued orphans like Oliver Twist and David Copperfield in the realistic context of 19th-century England. The Dardennes set their story about Cyril in the context of 21st-century Belgium's working-class suburbs. Like Oliver Twist, Cyril Catoul falls prey to the underworld: He is persuaded to take part in a robbery by a kind of Fagin, a gang leader who calls himself Wesker (Egon Di Mateo), after a character in the Resident Evil video game franchise. The Dardennes don't take a fully neorealist approach to the story the way they do in the only other film of theirs I've seen, Two Days, One Night (2014), which is a movie full of sympathy for those abused by capitalism. The Kid With the Bike is not an exposé, but rather a tribute to human kindness overcoming contemporary anomie. It is made plausible by the matter-of-fact approach of the Dardennes, but mostly by the performances, especially that of 13-year-old Doret, who had never acted before, but brings full conviction to every scene, including his rages and his hunger to be reunited with his father, as well as his eventual acceptance of Samantha's love and authority. The directors never milk a moment for sentiment: The only non-diegetic music on the soundtrack is the occasional punctuation at the end of a scene with a few bars from Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto, which has the tantalizing effect of keeping us suspended until the rest of the adagio is performed over the end credits.

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