“Life as it is and life as it ought to be: Let us take that as the only true subject for a film and consider to what extent the cinema is fulfilling its proper function.” — Graham Greene
Has Greene’s maxim for what he called “poetic cinema” ever been realized more perfectly and consistently, or with greater grace and humanity, than by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne?
“Life as it is and life as it ought to be,” expressed with a poetic power — “not the power melodiously to arrange words,” Greene wrote, “but the power to suggest human values” — this is what the Dardenne brothers have presented in one masterfully made film after another for the better part of two decades, beginning with La Promesse in 1996.
If you’re unfamiliar with their work, there’s no better place to start than their latest, The Kid With a Bike. One of their most elegant, universal and morally incisive films, it’s also their most accessible: an examination of the towering importance of fatherhood in a boy’s life; of the gaping wound left by a father who is less than his son needs him to be; of the social forces that rush to fill the vacuum; of the difference a person can make by simply, heroically saying Yes to someone whose whole world is a resounding No.
The world is full of boys just like 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret): vulnerable, truculent, wounded, heedless, needy, lost. Many children have an imaginary friend; Cyril has an imaginary father. Not that there is no father (there is, and we meet him eventually). Rather, the gap between Cyril’s primal need to believe in his father and what the man really is — what Cyril, deep down, must know him to be — is so profound that the boy will clutch at any straw, offer his father any fig leaf, to cling to the appearance of a relationship that has slipped away.
Cyril has been left by his father at a state-run boys’ home in Seraing, Belgium, with a promise to return in a month or so after getting back on his feet. The relics of Cyril’s relationship with his father are few: a disconnected phone number, the address of an empty apartment, and his holy grail: the bicycle his father bought him and kept at the apartment. Cyril’s bike completes him; when he gets it back, it’s like getting his father back. Best of all, the bike can’t let him down.
It’s a tragic situation: the kind you hear about in a friend’s tale of his dysfunctional extended family, or read about in the newspaper, and sigh, and wish you could do something. You wish you could, but you don’t. In The Kid With a Bike, someone does.
We’ve seen Cyril clinging desperately to a telephone receiver, a fence, anything he can lay his hands on to exert some control over his life. One day, Cyril throws his arms around a startled stranger — and gets an unexpected response.
It’s in this scene that the Dardennes’ moral vision comes into sharp focus. The Dardennes are former documentarians, and their storytelling has a naturalistic, documentary-like feel, though in fact every aspect of their work — script, set design, shots and camera movements, direction of actors — is carefully controlled. (The Kid With a Bike includes just a few brief musical flourishes, essentially the first nondiegetic music in their films.)
All or nearly all of the Dardennes’ films turn on crucial moments of moral decision, moments of existential clarity in which characters hold their own selves in their hands like water, as Thomas More said in A Man for All Seasons.
The Dardennes’ characters are complex, and they live in a world as intransigent as our own. Still, there are moments when the rationales and distractions and necessities that normally sustain us in our courses seem to withdraw, and normally abstract moral considerations become palpably present.
Sometimes, as in L’Enfant (The Child), there is a choice between decency and heinousness. In The Kid With a Bike, the first crucial choice, the one that sets the story in motion, is a choice between neutrality and grace. There is no obligation to respond heroically, to intervene in a situation that is none of one’s business. Why would someone put themselves out in this way? The film’s silence on this question is precisely what makes the action so powerful.
Cyril winds up spending weekends with a caring hairdresser named Samantha (Cecile de France). At the same time, his quest for his father continues, at last reaching anticlimactic fruition. This scene includes one of the most heart-rending images I’ve seen in any film, though why a boy stirring a saucepot over a stove should be heart-rending makes sense only in context.
Here is the flip side of heroism: moral dereliction, personal bankruptcy, cowardice. Samantha confronts Cyril’s father, Guy (Jérémie Renier, whose troubled roles in La Promesse and L’Enfant add resonance here), in the end insisting that he at least be honest with his son. The Dardennes have sometimes been described as “objective” and “nonjudgmental.” That’s true in the sense that they extend empathy to everyone and don’t create characters to be hated, but there’s no question who has the moral high ground in this devastating scene.
What happens next is nearly inevitable. In a world of paternal and domestic failure, male role models and substitute families will be taken where they can be found. Earlier Cyril recoiled violently from a potential substitute father figure — but that was before his last encounter with his own father. Now, he willingly falls in with a young delinquent named Wes (Egon Di Mateo), who shrewdly woos him with a potent blend of respect (including a cool nickname, “Pitbull”), privilege and a sense of obligation or indebtedness.
All of this plays out with prosaic inevitability and a complete lack of melodrama. A stupid, terrible act occurs — and Cyril’s father issues reach a new depth of pathos. Consequences must be faced, responsibility accepted: themes given an unexpected twist in a startling coda.
The Kid With a Bike premiered in 2011 at Cannes, where it was co-winner of the Grand Prix. Later that year, at the Venice Film Festival, the Dardennes received the Robert Bresson Prize, personally awarded each year by the Patriarch of Venice on behalf of the Catholic film foundation Ente dello Spettacolo, in consultation with the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Social Communications.
The Bresson Prize honors filmmakers (not individual films) whose work “has given a testimony, significant on account of its sincerity and intensity, of the difficult road in search of the spiritual meaning of our life.” The Kid With a Bike amply vindicates this verdict of their work. Here is a film that will break your heart, fill it with hope and challenge you to say Yes to God and to your neighbor, all at once.
The Kid With a Bike is newly available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection. Bonus features are similar to Criterion’s previous Dardenne films, La Promesse and Rosetta.
Once again, the Dardennes sit down for a leisurely discussion (about 73 minutes) with an eminent film critic, this time Kent Jones of the World Cinema Foundation, to discuss their process, inspirations and experiences making the film. For those swept away by the apparent naturalism of the Dardennes’ work, it may be eye-opening to discover just how meticulously planned and rehearsed their films are.
As in other interviews, we get intriguing glimpses of the Dardennes’ moral worldview. The best line comes at the very end: “We live in cynical times. Cynicism is associated with intelligence, naïveté with stupidity. But I prefer the naïveté of fools to the cynicism of the wise.”
There is a second extra on the Dardennes’ method, a 34-minute featurette in which the brothers revisit certain locations in Seraing and discuss how scenes were filmed. Other extras include interviews with Cecile de France (19 minutes) and Thomas Doret (six minutes).
There is no commentary track, and there’s no need for one; the film is so lucid and complete that nothing more is needed. I’ve read a number of very good reviews of The Kid With a Bike, but not one that has significantly enhanced my appreciation of the film. For the same reason, this was not an easy review to write: The film speaks so eloquently for itself that there’s really nothing more to say.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.