Thursday, 22 March 2012

GFT programme note: The Kid with a Bike

On release from tomorrow, The Kid with a Bike gets two big ol' thumbs up from me - here's my short article on the film, written for the Glasgow Film Theatre.


In many ways, The Kid with a Bike is a typical Dardenne feature, with many of their hallmarks present and correct: the Seraing setting; the use of non-professional actors in prominent roles; a matter-of-fact realist aesthetic combined with elliptical narrative structure; and a thematic focus on childhood in all its confusion. As Jonathan Romney notes, this consistency is in part due to a repertory of regular collaborators both in front of and behind the camera, including cinematographer Alain Marcoen and editor Marie-Hélène Dozo on the production side, and Jérémie Renier and (in one extremely fleeting scene) Olivier Gourmet in the cast.[1] But in other respects, The Kid with a Bike diverges from expectations established as far back as 1996’s La Promesse: it is their first to be shot in summer, reflecting a more optimistic tone;[2] their first to feature a bona-fide film star in the luminous form of Cécile De France; and their first to use non-diegetic music, with Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto scoring a handful of key moments. In addition, the brothers have discussed the film in terms that seem at odds with the realist approach for which they are held as paragons. ‘We wanted to construct the film as a kind of fairy tale,’ states Jean-Pierre Dardenne in interview; at one stage, he reveals, the film was even titled A Fairytale for Our Times.[3]

It’s an unusual reference point for a number of reasons, not least because the fairy tale’s broadly-painted notions of good and evil don’t seem to allow for the kind of moral complexity for which the duo are rightly lauded. The actions of Bruno in L’Enfant (2005), to pluck one protagonist from a filmography full of equally-applicable examples, are a tangled mix of callousness, haplessness, abjection and, eventually, minor redemption; a knot not easily accommodated by the Manichean simplicity of the fairy tale. Nonetheless, the concept of ‘realist fairy tale’ is an intriguing lens through which to view the siblings’ latest feature.

The ‘kid’ of the title is 11-year-old Cyril, played with remarkable intensity by Thomas Doret in his screen debut. The ‘bike’ is Cyril’s most prized possession, sold by his father Guy (Renier) after abandoning Cyril to foster care. Angry, tenacious and almost always in agitated motion, Cyril strains his young body towards two hoped-for reunions: with his bike, and with his father. When he escapes the care centre to search for the latter, the camera follows closely, but can barely keep up with his determined sprint. When the boy’s pace slows, the camera moves closer still, positioned at his diminutive level, cutting adult figures from the frame.

Later, when his bike is returned to him, there is the same dashing movement, but even faster, and more fluid. As Manohla Dargis astutely notes in The New York Times, Cyril’s focussed trajectory ‘brings to mind one of the laws of motion: A body in motion travels in a straight path until acted on by an outside force.’[4] Local hairdresser Samantha (De France) provides the necessary counterforce; when they collide in a doctor’s surgery, Cyril clasps his arms tightly around her in an attempt to resist being taken back to the centre. ‘You can hold me, just not so tight,’ the smothered Samantha whispers – an act of consolation that subsequently becomes a promise, when she agrees to foster Cyril at weekends. Her kindness is deliberately never given any firm psychological motivation, and Cyril undoubtedly gives his benefactor sufficient cause to question her commitment, in one scene leaping from an already-in-motion fairground ride with the cry ‘I’m going alone!’ So why does she persevere? To adopt the directors’ own phraseology, in the fairy tale reading, Samantha is ‘the good fairy’, whom the plot places in opposition to ‘the bad guy’: drug-dealer and petty criminal Wes. Cyril first encounters Wes in woodland, where his red clothing (a signature colour for Cyril, from tracksuit top to ginger hair) explicitly underscores the fairy tale connotations of this encounter between child and predatory ‘wolf’. But painting the plot as a battle between influences good and bad for the soul of an innocent is too simplistic; what to make, for instance, of the scene in which Wes is shown caring for an elderly relative, hinting at a more complicated context for his criminality? Or, indeed, the character of Guy, who abandons his son not out of malice, but a fear of inadequacy, his fecklessness characterised not as cold or cruel, but pathetic – as lost as his son, only far less courageous.

For all the fairy tale reference points, The Kid with a Bike’s depiction of human behaviour – often messy and unexplainable – is as its core as sincere and naturalistic as their past works. To return to the question of Samantha’s personal motivations, another of Luc Dardenne’s comments suggests the brothers’ compassion for their protagonists is, if anything, more emphatically felt than ever. ‘Kindness has a mysterious aspect’ Luc states, ‘but wanting to find Samantha’s reasons is tantamount to minimising her kindness. Because kindness, certainly more than Evil, scares people. Kindness isn’t rational. Samantha feels called upon by this kid, and she responds to his call. She chooses him and he likewise chooses her. That was enough for us.’[5] Despite the mention of ‘evil’, his words indicate that, more than just a fairy tale for our times, The Kid with a Bike is a profoundly human tale for the ages.

Dr Christopher Buckle
Researcher and Journalist
March 2012

[1] Jonathan Romney (2012), ‘La Comedie Humaine’, Sight and Sound April 2012, p. 43

[2] Domenico La Porta (2012), ‘Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: Directors’ Cineeuropa, accessed 20/03/12 at

[3]The Kid with a Bike, accessed 20/03/12 at

[4] Manohla Dargis (2012) ‘Seeking a Father, Finding Humanity’, The New York Times, 15 March 2012, accessed 20/03/12 at

[5] Frédéric Bonnaud, tr. Jonathan Robbins (2012), ‘Radical Kindness’, Film Comment, accessed 20/03/12 at

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