While it has been a bumper season for terriers, with star appearances in no fewer than three major films, 2011-12 has also been a boom time for disturbed children. First there was the terrifying protagonist of We Need to Talk about Kevin, then hypersensitive Oscar in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Get ready to meet Cyril, the disturbed and disturbing subject of The Kid with a Bike – winner of the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The matter-of-fact title gives a good indication of the naturalistic style of this production by the Belgian brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes. The film has a grainy texture, with much of the action shot with a hand-held camera. Lighting is a matter of indifference, seemingly dependent on whether we are indoors or outdoors. One has the feeling of spying or eavesdropping on the main characters.
The paradox of this ‘naturalistic’ approach is that it comes across as an affectation. We are so accustomed to films with slick production values, good lighting and emotionally charged acting, that the absence of these features lends a self-conscious dimension to The Kid with a Bike. It is like watching a documentary rather than a drama. The Dardennes brothers began as documentary-makers and have never relinquished those techniques, even though they have now produced a series of acclaimed features, including The Son (2002), The Child (2005), and Lorna’s Silence (2008).
There is plenty of sociological content to grapple with in The Kid with a Bike, as we are introduced to 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret), who is driving everyone crazy in a children’s home, where he simply refuses to sit still or obey instructions. Cyril is driven by an obsessive-compulsive need to get back to the apartment he used to share with his father, where he imagines he’ll be able to reclaim his bike.
When he runs away and goes knocking on the apartment door, it is obvious that both father and bike have vanished. This is a truth that Cyril does not want to acknowledge. He dashes into a clinic, grabs hold of a woman and has to be prised loose, before being returned to the boys home.
Shortly afterwards he is visited by that woman, a hairdresser called Samantha – played by the wonderfully named Cécile de France, who sounds more like a princess than an actress. She has found his bike, which had been sold to another family, and bought it back for him. She also agrees to take Cyril as a foster parent, although by now, every member of the audience is screaming: “Don’t do it!”
Samantha tries to provide Cyril with a stable home, but he is obsessed with his father. Finally they track down the prodigal parent (Jerémie Renier) and visit him. He is not thrilled to see Cyril, and confesses to Samantha that he just can’t cope. “Please don’t bring Cyril back,” is his heartfelt plea.
To a certain extent one sympathises with Cyril’s dad, but we still see him as a louse for shirking his responsibilites in such a cowardly manner. Naturally, his rejection sends Cyril into an even more psychotic state. He falls in with some perilous company and Samantha’s attempt to be a model parent gets harder all the time. A few dramatic incidents ensue, but by the end of the movie there is a glimmer of hope that Cyril is going to be OK. He is not a bad seed after all, just misunderstood.
Cyril is hyper-active and so wrapped up in his own pain that he has no thought for anyone else. When he is not zooming around on his bike he is running. We hardly ever see him walk. In the beginning the bike serves as a substitute for the absent father, so desperately does he need to reclaim it. Throughout, it is an essential element of Cyril’s self-image. He may be a lonely little boy rejected by his dad, but on the bike he is a symbiosis of human and machine, speeding around the streets in a way that suggests he is trying to out-pace his own misery.
Many viewers will feel that Samantha’s stoic forebearance defies credulity. She is certainly the saintly type because there is nothing about Cyril that would endear him to anyone, apart from his tragic vulnerability. Yet pity is one thing and martyrdom another.
Because of the detached manner in which the Dardennes make a movie, with only a smattering of Beethoven to provide a little emotional nudge from time to time, one cannot ascribe any profound moral to the story. Cyril is all action and no contemplation. Samantha is a good person, but it is impossible – even for her – to understand her motivations. She is also remarkably colourless. Perhaps the Dardennes simply want to assert that even the hardest cases may be tamed by good-hearted, boring people.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, March 24, 2012
The Kid with a Bike,Belgium, Rated M, 87 minutes