By Luke Buckle.
The Dardenne brothers return with another realist-documentary style film, this time depicting eleven year old protagonist Cyril (Thomas Doret) and the disruption to his life after his father (Jérémie Renier) abandoned him, leaving him at a foster home in Seraing. Winning the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, along with numerous other awards and nominations across the world, The Kid with a Bike is more than a journey of one boy’s despair, loneliness, anger and uncertainty. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne produce a film appraising the continuity, yet space for creativity, within their body of work spanning over forty years. The noticeable iconography of their features means there is no surprise in the direction, revisited natural settings and narratives of a personal nature, and the derivative themes and messages that can be pulled from their films. The authenticity of recognizable filmmaking processes and artistry behind the final production continue their stature within filmmaking, adding to a chronology of attributes that not only customizes their work to the audience and fulfills expectations, but is always evolving; such is this introduction of non-diegetic music to this film.
The film observes, from the unsteady mobility of the hand-held camera, a boy with an impossible predicament at such a young age. His father has left him; disappeared from the flat, sold his motorcycle and his son’s bicycle. The sense of loss is astounding as Cyril disregards the evidence that lies in front of him, unwilling to believe his father has really left him all alone in the world. We are introduced to a resilient boy looking for answers by any way possible as he exhausts all the ways he can think of that would allow him to regain contact with his father. From an enigmatic beginning to a subtle Dardenneian ending, this is a film that is largely indebted to Thomas’s first time as an actor and at such a young age. We observe how emotionally sparring the boy is as the narrative events push him to deal with themes of parenthood, loss, trust and the complex nature of love, which is truly inspiring and touching to watch.
Interestingly, the story originates from an anecdote told to the pair of directors in Japan: that of an orphaned boy whose mother had died and father had neglected him. When the boy was of age, he left the orphanage but unfortunately fell under the influence of a local gang leader in Tokyo and carried out a serious crime to impress him to gain acceptance. This story they were told initiated the basis of the narrative for the film. But why tell this story of a boy headed into a dismal future with no one to love or truly trust? Subsequently, the brothers rethought this story and explored how to represent how this seemingly inevitable outcome (and narrative structure) can be prevented, rather than eloping in his eventual downfall and self-destructive behavior.
By introducing Samantha (Céclie De France) and exploring the symbolic nature of Cyril’s bike, the film evolves into a more positive series of events that could have been potential fatal life choices. Samantha acted as an entity that could derail this destiny and change the boy’s life. Additionally, the bicycle acted as the only tangible object that still connected him to his father—something he would fight to keep numerous times during the film. The relationship with his father is obviously important to Cyril, however could the unexpected love and care of Samantha (waiting quietly seated in a doctor’s waiting room) begin to understand the boy and his needs?
Surprisingly, Cyril’s mother is never mentioned in the film, perhaps suggesting the film’s focus on male role models and subsequently the possible irony of Samantha eventually agreeing to look after him. After all, it was a mother figure he needed, or just generally a stable environment. Like this though, there are many unanswered questions throughout the film; but maybe it’s just that they don’t need to be answered. We become submersed within the mind of the child as his emotions are tied to actions that turn to self-harm yet incomprehensible kindness as well. We see him sleep so soundly, but how can this be? Later, the film takes a more brut and harsh turn as a series of events sees Cyril taken under the wing of a local “dealer”—a reminder of what can happen to misguided, impressionable youth in times of peril, lacking purpose and without a family for support. In this instance his bicycle is used as bait as he chases after a boy who steals it in plain sight.
Intriguingly, the image and connotations of the bicycle have appeared at rather poignant times in film history. An apparition of necessity and for the ability to work in post Second World War Italy in Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948), the bicycle can symbolize pain and hurt, accessibility and restraint, and yet of course freedom; but in this freedom for Cyril lies elements of distressing restriction as it enables him with a sense of freedom, however without resolve. It gets him into trouble and yet it also enables him to get out of it too. It’s possibly this sense of access that he lacks without a father figure or family that he reaches for in the freedom of his bike. He does, however, get access to a stable environment and is able to instill a mother figure in Samantha. He seems happy at the end of the film; especially after coming face to face with the consequences of his previous actions. Regardless, Cyril faces what no young child should, but the Dardenne brothers illuminate in aesthetically warm and attentive detail how one boy strives to understand and overcome having done everything in his power to try and save what once was. Nonetheless, as he rides off for the last time, it seems there will always exist a sense of loss throughout his life, an entity within the boy he will forever seek to suppress.
Luke Buckle is an English graduate and film research postgraduate currently working as a freelance writer for a number of companies and an Oxford culture magazine.
The Kid with a Bike received its Blu-ray and DVD release from the Criterion Collection on February 12th, 2013.