A new film from the Dardennes brother is always cause for celebration, particularly in Cannes where they just keep being given prizes. This year it was the Grand Jury award for their latest, Le gamin au vélo, and it’s been a popular title at numerous festivals since, finally rolling into Hollywood for the AFI FEST this week (November 3-10).
One usually knows what one’s getting with their films – moral and ethical travails amongst the put-upon working class of wintery industrial Belgium, with a handheld camera and Jérémie Renier. They’ve changed things up a little this time (although Renier still has a cameo), shooting in summer, with an established star (Cécile de France) and almost entirely eschewing a socio-economic dimension.
That last element is present only in that dire, unspecified circumstances are what have forced the title kid to be dumped into an orphanage by his dad. As played – superbly – by Thomas Doret, Cyril’s a hard, determined tyke, not a bad kid, but scrappy and anxious, furrowed brows ready for disappointment, and defiantly self-reliant. He has only one thing on his mind: asked what’s wrong, he replies “I want my dad”. Kindly young Samantha (de France), whom he meets by chance, first fetches him his bike, and then takes him in at the weekends, which allows him to peddle round the neighborhood in his search.
It doesn’t take long before dad turns up, but once it is clear that father Guy is too broken to consider taking responsibility for his child, the film, like Cyril, starts to lose its focus. The Dardennes’ typically rigorous logic is in place, but the sequence of events hereafter lacks the usual feeling for moral necessity. Cyril falls in with an older kid, whose sinister attentions make him an easy father figure, or at least a pal, but we know that won’t end well. Likewise the search for a mother never enters into it (we learn zero about Cyril’s) and Samantha for him is just a means to an end. But her role in the film is almost as simplistic as it is to Cyril, and despite a fine performance of warmth and restraint from de France, she is fundamentally an inexplicable angel, who with barely a thought can throw over her decent-seeming boyfriend for the kid, embodying the vague equivalence, raised several times, between wanting something and agreeing to something (it is Cyril who asks her to take him in; she agrees).
There’s nothing seriously wrong with the film, propelled by Doret’s fierce performance and the finest handheld camerawork in contemporary cinema, immediate but unobtrusive (from usual DP Alain Marcoen), but the Dardennes have their own high standards to meet. A case in point: for the first time, they employ non-diegetic music, mere seconds snatched from a Beethoven adagio (the Emperor Concerto). It is a superbly moving few notes: on its first two appearances it makes audible the boy’s emotion as we see his face or frantic pedaling, and marks the film’s structure in an entirely useful way. But the third time it appears, it is to cap a scene of rejection that is quite moving enough on its own, and playing over the back of Cyril’s head as he cycles off, hits an uncharacteristically manipulative note. Likewise, after a series of scenes which feel like they could be the last, the film comes to a close with an unmistakable resurrection, which works nicely as a scene and as resolution, but feels let down by the meandering lack of dramatic heft that precedes it.
That said, there’s a new and endearing optimism to the brothers’ film-making, along with a striking amount of bright color and golden light. Their insistent respect for character and truthfulness of behavior remains firmly in place, as does their ability to elicit superbly naturalistic but carefully worked out performances; and frankly, even a disappointing film from them is better than most everything else out there.
Information on the film, and to get free tickets from AFI FEST: The Kid With A Bike