“Maybe that is the mirror of the art of cinema … To perceive … in the cinematic projection the Other that is yourself and that your daily life occults.” (Luc Dardenne)
There isn’t a great deal of violence in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest Seraing-set exercise in empathy, The Kid With a Bike (2011). But what there is - a lunge with a knife; a second, surprise swing of a baseball bat - hurts like hell. The reason must be that the filmmakers’ celebrated style - nicely defined by Joseph Mai as “sensuous realism” - pulls the viewer into such intense intimacy with their characters that to see them do violence - or to see violence done to them - is incredibly painful. Art-house darlings they may be, but the Dardennes favour no arty distancing in their approach. Rather, theirs is a cinema of close contact and present-tense immediacy (a flashback in a Dardenne film is unthinkable), one based around the viewer’s response to the bodies in the frame. The episodes that I recall most in the brothers’ work are such intensely physical moments: the heroine’s tortuous journey with that gas canister at the end of Rosetta (1999); Bruno in The Child (2005) dropping to his knees and clinging to the legs of the woman who now despises him; Lorna in The Silence of Lorna (2008) bashing her head against a hospital wall as part of her steadfast route to a “better” life.
Indeed, the Dardennes have been famed for putting their characters through a school of hard knocks (often literally) and they’re at it again with The Kid With a Bike. The titular kid is 12-year-old Cyril (a remarkable debut performance by Thomas Doret). Carrot-topped, sad-eyed yet determined, he’s “in care” when we meet him: and his idée fixe is a reunion with his errant father Guy (Jérémie Renier) who’s dumped him there. Cyril has what many a Dardenne protagonist has possessed: namely, an always-on-the-move doggedness. One of his breaks for freedom leads him into contact with the kindly Samantha (Cécile de France), a hairdresser who agrees to take care of him at the weekends, and with whom he gradually forms a bond. But waiting in the wings is another father figure, Wes (Egon di Mateo), a young hoodlum eager to lure Cyril into a life of crime.
In a great review for The New Yorker (which I thank the marvellous Michal Oleszczyk for providing for me), Anthony Lane identifies some of The Kid With a Bike’s antecedents, from Oliver Twist to Bicycle Thieves and The 400 Blows. The Dickens connection seems especially apt: the opening chapters of David Copperfield, as described by Claire Tomalin in her recent Dickens biography, fit The Kid With a Bike precisely. “They show with a delicate intensity the pain of a child,” Tomalin writes, “[and] how someone who offers love to a neglected child becomes all important.”
That’s what the Dardennes show too: their movie conveys Cyril’s toughness and his vulnerability with incredible poignancy, albeit without recourse to Dickensian sentimentality, and his relationship with Samantha is beautifully portrayed. The redemptive impulse that has often been at the heart of the Dardennes' cinema - its tendency to edge disenfranchised protagonists towards a moment of connection or recognition or atonement - is extended in The Kid With a Bike, a film that the brothers apparently toyed with calling “A Fairytale for Our Times.”
Still, the great gift of the Dardennes' cinema has always been its ability to make us care for characters who might be considered our daily “Others” and who very often inflict as much damage as they suffer. With character back-story elided we’re once again drawn into a fundamentally physical, present-tense relationship with the protagonists here, one in which their gestures and movements and sounds are invested with incredible emotional and psychological weight. It’s through these gestures, indeed, that we get to know them. Note Cyril's desperate clinging to Samantha in the scene in which they meet. Or the eagerness with which Cyril follows his father around in one sequence. Or Samantha’s whimpering cry as she makes a phone-call that she doesn’t want to make.
For some critics, it seems, the brothers’ tactics have become overly-familiar and formulaic. And yet such a stance doesn’t really account for the freshness and vibrancy of The Kid with a Bike as it plays out. For me, the film takes its place alongside Rosetta and The Child as one of the Dardennes’s finest works, its presentation of Cyril’s growth in awareness - his gradual realisation that he must accept affection where it is offered, rather than pursue it where it is denied - constituting as moving a trajectory as any in their cinema. The tears that you just might shed at the end - and I found myself racked with sobs as the credits rolled - are tears of sorrow and hope combined. They’re also tears of gratitude, for such a compassionate, tender and restorative movie.