“As Cyril’s frenetic movement appears to up the tempo of the film, the directors drastically slow down the pace by using long takes, and as little cutting as possible. It is amid the two contrasting tendencies that Cyril’s story finds the perfect narrative balance.”
The latest film by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is oddly both fast and slow. Cyril, the main character (played wonderfully by Thomas Douret), looks for his father who had abandoned him, but connects with a benevolent hairdresser, Samantha, who eventually becomes his legal guardian. The kid is moving constantly, mostly on his bicycle the English translation of the original title, "Le Gamin au vélo," misses out on a nuance, that of possession, which is under question at the beginning of the film; but it is his bike — "au vélo" — not "avec"/with a random bicycle). As Cyril's frenetic movement appears to up the tempo of the film, the directors drastically slow down the pace by using long takes, and as little cutting as possible. It is amid the two contrasting tendencies that Cyril's story finds the perfect narrative balance.
Naturally, even the mention of the word "bike" in a film makes us recall Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thief (1948): a kid, a bike, a father. De Sica's film indeed hovers over the narrative of The Kid with a Bike, but the latter goes in new directions. The stolen Italian bicycle is connected to the destinies of an entire family, while Cyril's bike evolves from signifying his lost connection to a father who does not want him to the object that offers him freedom. The theme of independence appears from the beginning when we witness Cyril attempting to escape the children's home in which he had been placed. In fact, in this instance we are reminded more of Antoine Doinel from Truffaut's 400 Blows (1959) than Antonio or Bruno from Bicycle Thief. The emblematic final run at the end of 400 Blows is essentially an interminable, uninterrupted travelling shot of Antoine running toward the sea. Cyril's story almost picks up where Truffaut had decided to open end Antoine's odyssey. The direction of Cyril's movement is rather significant, too. Antoine runs left to right, a direction associated with Western movement; he is headed toward a conclusion. Cyril's movement, conversely, is chaotic and goes both directions. Interestingly, when he is about to get into trouble (riding toward the gas station, running away etc.), he goes in the opposite direction, right to left. When the film reaches some sense of normality, and we see both Samantha and Cyril ride together, they go in the "correct" direction, left to right.
There are many other connections to Truffaut's film, and even to Godard's Breathless (1960). Cyril, like Antoine, lies about obvious truths; there are several references to a psychologist Cyril presumably talks with at the children's home, although we never see him or her. Truffaut's film famously chooses to show only Antoine during the conversation with the psychologist, completely ignoring the counter shot. When Samantha and Cyril are in a car, we often only see Cyril and hear Samantha's voice (the opposite happens in Godard's Breathless in which we see Patricia talk to Michel in the car, but we do not see the latter). Even though there are a few people influencing him, Cyril comes off as independent for the most part. Initially, though, he cannot think of anything but being reunited with his father (in another departure from Bicycle Thief, the father had sold his son's bicycle when he found himself financially strapped). At the crucial moment of acceptance that his father is no longer interested in taking care of him, Cyril finds himself on the other side of a metaphorical wall. However, this happens to be also an actual wall that he had to climb in order to get to his dad. When the father pushes him back to the other side, for a brief moment they are literally separated by a wall. For a moment, we fear for Cyril, for his fate, until we realize that he is on the open side of the wall, the side from which he can escape.
Cyril also owes some debt to an earlier Dardenne film, The Promise (1996), that has another boy, Igor, as the central character. He too has a problematic relationship with his father, and he too constantly rides a two-wheel vehicle, a moped. The directors like to put their young, troubled characters in perpetual motion, in a frenetic search for themselves. But there is much more to Cyril than the melodramatic surface. His story often reads like a fairy tale. There is the quasi-orphan status (no mother, father who rejects him); many of the negative events that happen to him occur in the woods (mythical space); there are bad guys (also coming out from the woods); and finally, he is the only character who wears red in the entire film. He owns a red t-shirt, and a long-sleeved shirt of reddish nuances — enough to argue that there is a connection to be made with Red Riding Hood (the dealer, Wes, playing the part of the wolf — slick hair, black t-shirt signaling him as a negative character). However, this is hardly a cautionary tale, and there is no sexual subtext (unless we want to read into Cyril stabbing Samantha in the arm and making her bleed, which awakens her maternal instincts . . . too much?). Instead, it is a coming-of-age story, or really a story about what we search for, what we run or ride toward, and ultimately it is a story about making amends and moving on (a bike). Maybe it is also a story about looking for love. Samantha claims that she does not know why she accepts Cyril, and why she takes him in eventually for good. She is a hairdresser — she "fixes" hair — and she takes on a big project in Cyril, someone who needs a lot of fixing. Yet neither knows what has drawn them to one another.
In the last sequence, Cyril picks himself up after having fallen from a tree. He does not cry; he deserved that fall because, under the influence of Wes, he had attacked a man and his son and stolen their store earnings for that day. He gets up quietly, gets on his bicycle, and heads home toward Samantha's. The camera follows him briefly, as he moves right (the "correct" direction as he is absolved of the guilt), and then he suddenly turns the corner and disappears. And that is the perfect spot to end his journey; as he turns the metaphorical corner.