By Joseph Fahim
Last May, the Cannes Film Fest hosted the world premiere of “Le gamin au vélo” (The Kid with a Bike), the latest picture by Belgium’s greatest filmmakers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Cannes has become the expected home for the Dardenne Brothers, selecting their previous four films in its main competition.
Their track record in Cannes in unparalleled: Two Palm d’Ors (“Rosetta” and “L’enfant”), best actor and special mention from the Jury (“Le fils”), best screenplay (“Le silence de Lorna”), and, as this year, the Grand Prize of the Jury for “Le gamin.”
The first reviews for the Dardenne’s eight-narrative feature were mild. The main point of criticism revolved around the duo’s reluctance to diverge away from their signature themes and style. In addition, “Le gamin” was regarded as a lighter fair than their previous works. These denunciations swiftly faded as the film gained momentum, cumulating with its big win.
Like all great auteurs, the Dardennes’ new release follows the same path paved by their previous films. Working-class struggles, moral crises and the search for grace have defined every one of their films and “Le gamin” is no different. The sunny setting, controlled vitality and emotional generosity of the new film are, nonetheless, markedly atypical compared to their previous more austere films and the result is nothing short of a flawless, transcending piece of cinema that ranks among the finest pictures of the year.
The film opens with a medium shot of an 11-year-old boy dressed in a red t-shirt and jeans. He’s making a phone call; no one is responding on the other side. A couple of grown-up men invade the frame, but the camera remains focuses on the boy. They tell him that the number is out of service; that he should hang up; that his efforts are futile. The boy’s name is Cyril (Thomas Doret), the setting is an orphanage and the conflict, introduced in the very first frame, is clear: his dad has left him.
Cyril cannot bring himself to believe that his father has abandoned him; that he’s left all alone in this place. His silent eyes brim with a mixture of anger, hurt and denial. He breaks out of the orphanage, flees away from the social workers, climbs up walls and trees and fence. He runs around in circles, to nowhere, relishing in the physical test of the chase, of the purpose it grants him, yet he fails to act beyond this ephemeral endeavor.
The next day, he goes on search for his bicycle, hoping it will lead him to his dad. Once again, he fails, goes on the run from the counselors and, out of the blue, takes shelter in the arms of a complete stranger (César-winning actress Cécile De France). “You can hold me, but not too tight,” she tells him, in one the most heartbreaking moments of the film.
The stranger is Samantha, a hairdresser who owns a saloon. She decides to take care of him for unknown reasons that are never revealed. Cyril finally locates his father who throws him out of the new restaurant he’s taken a position in.
His father is, coincidently, played by Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier in a role that is almost a reprisal of his irresponsible young father in “L’enfant.” The choice of Renier — who had has breakthrough also as a troubled child in the Dardennes’ “La Promesse” (1996) — is not intentional as the duo stressed in recent interviews, yet Renier, and his character from “L’enfant” represents a solid block of the Dardennes’ universe: the ruthlessness of a world defined by disorder.
His obsessive pursuit for a father figure leads him to Le libraire (Fabrizio Rongione), a drug dealer and a robber recruiting young aides. The comfort and bliss Samantha offers him is constantly challenged by an outer cruel world demanding tough choices Cyril must make.
The Dardennes have described “Le gamin” as a fairytale, a valid perspective considering the structure of the narrative. Cyril is a Pinocchio-like figure searching for his lost humanity, for acceptance that he eventually finds with Samantha, the fairy of the story. And despite its honesty and rigorousness, the ambiance of the film is bright, a direct upshot of the startling fact that it’s Dardennes’ first picture shot in summer. The film also marks the first time the Dardennes have employed non-digestic music — an adagio of Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” that delineates the three acts of the story.
These light touches smooth the sharp edges of the Dardenne’s signature gritty, unsentimental documentary-like realism; a style that has been copiously reproduced by various filmmakers across the world. There’s a disarming tenderness about “Le gamin,” a sense of consolation rarely felt so openly in their past outings.
The Dardennes direct their slice-of-life stories as action films (“L’enfant,” for example, contain an extended nerve-racking chase scene), unusually kinetic for such types of narratives. “Le gamin” is less staid than “Le fils” and “L’enfant” but more propulsive than “Lorna,” their bleakest, most hopeless film to date.
Cyril is constantly in motion; his quixotic quest to find his father signals a hidden desperation to dodge carrying this heavy burden, a desolation he cannot cope with. Every action he commits, including his perilous run-in with Le libraire, stems from a profound, unshakable and blind longing to win his father’s love. His young, innocent mind is yet to comprehend the father’s self-centeredness, spinelessness and indifference. The Dardennes understands that when you’re young, your entire existence almost always depends on your parents; their nurture, love and acceptance.
They recognize the unbearable agony caused by being rejected at early age; a grave, incurable scar further contaminated by the lack of an immunity system.
The world Cyril born into is relentless in its cruelty. He’s torn between an unloving father and a violent, culture. He learns to stand up for himself early on, protecting his bike from the constant robbing threats by the other kids. His belligerence, his anger, is a product of a world he’s struggling to find his place in.
In such world, the affection, compassion and love Samantha offers him are, thus, all the more startling, miraculous even. There’s something inexplicably glorious about finding comfort with a stranger; a bracing, unexpected ray of hope. The moments of bliss Cyril comes to share with Samantha are deeply poignant, holy-like in their purity— a panacea for Cyril’s emotional anguishes.
I’ve always believed that the Dardenne brothers are the rightful heirs to great French director Robert Bresson; a filmmaker celebrated not only for his minimalist, hard-bitten cinema but also for his strong and palpable Christian themes. Throughout their career, the Dardennes have followed the same path, albeit in their own distinctive and unique way.
The grace both Bresson and Dardenne’s heroes always strived to reach and usually found after conquering their arduous spiritual crises lies front and center in “Le gamin au vélo.” Cyril ultimately emerges as wounded lamb healed by Samantha’s Christ-like figure. At the end, he learns to accept the vindictiveness of the world; he decides to be part of it, but with his morality intact. Good and bad are two life courses one must decides to choose between in spite of the adversities, and Cyril has chosen his.
“The Kid with a Bike” is screening as part of the 4th European Panorama on Wed, Nov. 23 and Thurs, Nov. 24 at Stars cinema and Sun, Nov. 27 at Galaxy cinema.
Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.