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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: The Kid with a Bike



THE KID WITH A BIKE (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

Belgium/France: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2011 (Criterion Collection)

The Kid with a Bike is another first-class film by those fabulous film realists Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne from Belgium. And it‘s a beauty — a quietly naturalistc and tremendously moving fiction feature done in the Dardenne Brothers’ trademark quasi-documentary style, telling a story that seems as real as the street outside your window and the people walking or riding by on it — especially the kids with bikes. It’s also another of  the Dardennes’  stories about fathers and sons (like 2002’s The Son or 1996’s La Promesse), and about the dividing line between generations and also between ordinary people and lawbreakers.

The setting is, once again the industrial, largely working class city of Seraing in Belgium: the Dardenne Brothers’ home city and the location for most of their films since La Promesse. The central character is an 11-year-old boy named Cyril (played by the remarkable child actor Thomas Doret),  a child who has lost his father and had his bike stolen — and can’t adjust to either loss.

When Cyril gets the bicycle back, thanks to the kindness of a stranger (Cecile de France as Samantha, a social worker at the place where the boy lives), he both attaches himself to his benefactress Samantha and sets off on a quest to  reunite with his dad Guy (Jeremie Renier), who has moved to another city without telling him. But, just as Cecile is the unexpected angel who brings him familial love, there are two antagonists who frustrate his search: the local young criminal kingpin Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a young dealer who tries to recruit Cyril as a gang member, and Guy himself, who has intentionally abandoned his son (after the loss of his wife), and  clearly doesn’t want to see him again.

The Kid with a Bike consists mostly of short, swift scenes with Cyril racing though mini-dramas of social and familial conflict. The dominating image is the boy with this bike, caught in fast-moving tracking shots following him as he runs down the sidewalks or rides on the streets. These are very kinetic sequences — they will probably remind many of you of the special childhood sense of freedom and speed kids get in driving a bicycle. And Thomas Doret is a very kinetic actor. His energy seems boundless, his will indomitable. When Cecile is asked, by her irritated boyfriend, to choose between helping Cyril  and being with him, she actually chooses the boy, and we’re not surprised. It’s not a semi-romantic attraction, at least not overtly so. But Cyril is a human comet, and that unshakable will of his keeps asserting itself and speeding past the rest of the slower, more pedestrian world, What happens to them all finally is both shocking and, in a way, inevitable.

I think The Kid with a Bike is a great film. But it’s so cheaply made and so simple — in execution and seemingly in themes — that it’s been pretty much neglected in the U.S., despite good reviews and despite winning the Cannes Film Festival jury prize (which it shared with Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s crime story Once Upon a Time in Anatolia). It’s the sort of movie that an average American audience, even an average American art film audience, might think was nice, but small or inconsequential.

Not so. Actually, the Dardenne Brothers’ film does deal with complex themes and deep emotions, and it’s profound in its grasp and portrayal of everyday humanity. Only if you ignore that humanity and those depths does it seem unimportant or minor. A good deal of this movie’s  powerful effect comes from its ability to make us see through the eyes of a child, and feel with the heart of a child — or, more accurately, think and feel in sympathy with a child who, because of his abandonment, is increasingly being thrust into premature maturity — in contrast to his irresponsible father.

The resolution of all these problems,  which I won’t described, conveys a very mixed strange feeling — and that’s when we may realize how much the Dardennes have come to  identify with — and have made us identify with — this kid on his bike and what he‘s gone through.

Doret is, in fact, an astonishing actor. Tirelessly energetic, thoroughly unself-conscious, yet chillingly aware of everything around him, he dominates every scene he‘s in — which is almost every scene in the movie. The cinema has been graced recently with a number of excellent child actors, from the younger Dakota and Elle Fanning to  Saoirse Ronan, and Doret is one of the best of them, a child  actor with an incredible sense of natural behavior and unforced realism — with the presence of  a little Depardieu or Brando or Steve McQueen. Doret, without a false note, portrays a boy  hungry for experience, not yet spoiled by the world and its hypocrisies, someone who believes in people as they seem, and is surprised when they betray him — and themselves.

The Dardennes tend to work with the same actors over and over again, and I imagine we’ll eventually see Doret again too. Jeremie Renier, who plays the despicable Guy  – and who shouldn’t be confused with the American actor Jeremy Renner — has been working with the Dardennes since he was a boy actor himself, in La Promesse, and he has by now an extraordinary simpatico with everything they do. The brothers’ other main player. in most of their films, is back again too: the chunky, bespectacled Olivier Gourmet, who has a style reminiscent of John Goodman‘s, shows up here in a small but memorable role as a phlegmatic bar owner.

The radiant blonde Cecile De France, of course, is  not only new to the Dardennes’ unofficial stock company, but a  major French and international star as well. (She co-starred in Clint Eastwood’s  Hereafter.) Yet, in a way De France’s film stardom and beauty, fit the movie as well as the old Dardenne hands do. As Samantha commits herself more and more to caring for and protecting Cyril, she begins to seem a kind of beautiful fairy godmother,  a surrogate mother out of a dream.

The Dardennes also rarely use music, but here they play on the soundtrack, several times, a heart-breaking passage from the slow movement of Beethoven’s’ “Emperor” Piano Concerto No. 5 —  my favorite classical piece in all the world. It got me here again, too, though the fast first movement (Allegro) of  the “Emperor” is the one I really love best.

The Dardennes, who began as documentary filmmakers, are among the preeminent dramatic movie realists in the international cinema today. I wouldn’t call their fellow multiple Cannes prize-winner Michael Haneke a realist, though he’s often a great filmmaker, and many of the current French-speaking cineastes tend to be either genre specialists or political (or sexual) naturalists.

The Dardennes, by contrast, always seem to be conveying life as it is, without any filters of subjectivity. We follow Cyril‘s journey but we’re not trapped in his point of view — or, seemingly, in anyone else’s. At the end, we’ve lived a piece of his life with him, a very important piece.  And we wonder and care about what will happen to him and to Samantha — or at least, I did. And I could never ride a bike.

Extras: Conversation between Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Kent Jones; Interviews with Cecile De France and Thomas Doret; Documentary Return to Seraing (2011), in which the Dardennes revisit locations from the film; Trailer; Booklet with essay by Geoff Andrew.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon