Bright Lights Film Journal

Dispatches from Cannes 2011 #3: Le Gamin au Velo (The Kid with a Bike)

DATELINE CANNES, May 18, 2011. The films of Belgian brothers Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne give new meaning to the term motion picture. Their protagonists are continually on the move, with the camera following doggedly behind them, as if the directors are trying to keep up with them to see that they don’t get into any mischief. In order to achieve this subjective intimacy with the characters and to capture their nervous mobility, the Dardennes have elevated the hand-held camera to the level of other great cinematic devices. They barely use the shot-reverse-shot method, which serves most films, nor is their camera style POV. The camera is closer to being the audience’s surrogate than in any other films I can think of.

We pursue Rosetta (1999) as she determinedly looks for a job. We spy on the carpenter in The Son (2002); he, in turn, is spying on the boy responsible for the death of his son. We accompany the young father in The Child (2005) as he desperately tries to find money, eventually selling his baby. We follow the Albanian woman as she unscrupulously maneuvers her way to Belgian citizenship in The Silence of Lorna (2008).

It was therefore logical for the Dardennes, given their penchant for capturing the movement of their walking or running people, to put their latest character, 11-year-old Cyril (the remarkable Thomas Doret), on a bike, which he uses as an instrument of freedom and escape from his drab existence in a foster home. We follow his every move, trying to understand him. There is no special pleading, nor are the Dardennes ever judgmental. They leave audiences to make up their own minds.

The directors’ interest in bodies in motion goes way back to their 1987 short film Il Court, Il Court, Le Monde (The World’s Racing), which quotes the Futurist artist Fillipo Marinetti, who claimed that “a new beauty has been added to the splendor of the world , the beauty of speed.” However, their films are far from the over-frenetic oeuvre of Emir Kusturica or that of a film like Run, Lola, Run. For one thing, there is no rapid cutting in a Dardenne film, with long takes providing the necessary time for us to contemplate the leading characters, none of whom are especially likeable despite our sympathy for their plight. What concerns the directors are the underlying forces that influence the actions of their marginalized working-class characters, often caught up in inextricably difficult situations.

Cyril is far from the cute youngsters so often found in movies, Hollywood or otherwise. He is an overactive, unsmiling, red-haired, pasty-faced child who has been rejected by his selfish father (played by a Dardennes regular, the blond Jérémie Renier, who made his screen debut at the age of 15 in La Promesse). The boy is then taken in by a hairdresser (Cecile de France), to whom he literally clings while on the run. When she is finally faced with an ultimatum from her boyfriend to choose between him and the pesty kid, she opts for the latter.Like De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (more correctly titled Bicycle Thieves in the UK), to which The Kid with a Bike is on nodding acquaintance, it has a realistic surface but a highly organized script. Curiously, the directors have used non-diegetic music for the first time in their films , the opening bars of the Adagio to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. This is used so sparingly it seems as if they were just trying it out to see if it would work. It does.

As in the brothers’ previous films, there is a crime committed that leads to the theme of revenge or forgiveness. Yet this is approached in a non-didactic, non-sentimental manner. Nevertheless, it’s a tribute to the Dardennes that Le gamin au velo is always involving and is ultimately as much an “emotion picture” as a motion picture.