‘Kid with a Bike’ adds to Dardennes’ success

By Drew Hunt

For nearly two decades, brothers and Belgian directing duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been prominent figures in international art cinema. The two-time Palme d’Or winners have earned a worldwide following thanks to a body of work that has remained strikingly consistent.

Their newest film is called “The Kid with a Bike,” and the titular kid is the impetuous 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Douret) who’s been living in state-run youth public housing after being abandoned by his deadbeat dad. With nothing to his name aside from his beloved bike, he garners the pity of a local hairdresser (Cecile de France) who offers to foster him on weekends. Despite Cyril’s erratic and overemotional behavior, their relationship blossoms.

Ranking among the very best of their films to date, “The Kid with a Bike” is a beautiful, compassionately humanistic story told in the sort of sublime fashion the Dardenne’s have come to perfect. Even in its more overtly emotional moments, the film sidesteps sentimentality at all costs as it builds to its pitch-perfect denouement.

Belgian cinema traditionally shows a penchant for surrealism (“Man Bites Dog”), or, in recent years, gritty neo-noir thrillers (“Bullhead”). Compared to the rest of their countrymen, the Dardenne brothers’ films are something of an anomaly.

They began their careers as documentarians in the late ’70s but moved to more experimental methods in the ’80s, culminating with 1987’s “Falsch,”a psuedo-Brechtian adaptation of a René Kalisky play set in an abandoned airport. It wasn’t until 1996’s “La Promesse” that their films settled into a more traditional narrative mode.

These days, their style is all about concision: small casts, minimal settings and an economic approach to shot selection have become some of their trademarks. Because their films tend to take place in urban cityscapes and feature characters from, if not a lower class, than at least a struggling class of society, their films are sometimes compared to neorealism.

This is an apt comparison to a certain degree, especially considering they’ve never fully abandoned their documentary aesthetic. The difference lies in their approach to narrative. Dardenne films are nominally tales of class struggle, but they’re infused with themes of personal desire and sacrifice, placing them closer to the likes of Bresson as opposed to de Sica.

At the same time, they’re not married to naturalism, nor are they averse to such formal techniques as discontinuity editing. An occasional jump cut finds its way into “The Kid with a Bike,” and more than a few images and camera movements are repeated throughout the film. Lesser directors use this approach in ways that call attention to themselves. Wes Anderson’s incessant panning, particularly in “The Darjeeling Limited,” instantly comes to mind.

But the Dardenne’s have far less lofty ambitions. Their focus is placed largely on characterization, which tends to be reserved and decidedly untheatrical. It comes as no surprise, then, that the performances in “The Kid with a Bike” are among its strongest aspects. As the film’s central character, Doret is given the heaviest load to carry. He appears in every scene, and thanks to the Dardennes’ penchant for long takes, he’s expected to sustain the emotion of each one for an extended period of time.

Suffice it say, Doret delivers one of the finest performances of any Dardenne film. He’s given a tough character to play: brazen, confused and prone to violent outbursts yet completely sympathetic. He’s the film’s moral fiber as well as its ethical compass. Without his conviction, “The Kid with a Bike” may well have been a far less successful film.