The more I think about The Kid With a Bike, the more I like it.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been so consistent and so dependable for the last fifteen years, turning out high quality films every two to three years, that a new film from them doesn’t seem to generate the buzz or excitement of a fresh, new talent. A Cannes festival prize for the brothers sometimes seems less a crowning achievement and more of a given. Their credits include: Rosetta (Palme d’ Or), The Son (Ecumenical Jury, Special Mention), L’Enfant (Palme d’Or), Lorna’s Silence (Best Screenplay). The Kid With a Bike won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and was the brothers’ fourth film nominated for the Palme d’Or (only six directors in history have multiple wins). They are the Lou Gehrig of film directors…their consistency hides the magnitude of their achievement.
The newest film from the Belgian duo has many familiar elements. The title character is Cyril, a boy whose mother died and whose father has abandoned him to foster care. Refusing to accept his fate, he bangs on the door of his father’s empty apartment, accuses the person to whom his father sold his bike of stealing it, and generally meets each new challenge by acting out or running away.
Cyril is on the fast track to juvenile delinquency and, most probably, an early death. The immovability of his fate is challenged only by the irresistible…compasson? pity? love?…of a hair dresser who buys his bike back for him and eventually agrees to become his foster mother. The Dardenne brothers told audiences at The Toronto International Film Festival that the motivation of the hairdresser, Samantha, was the film’s chief mystery and the one they hoped that audiences would think and talk about.
It is both true but insufficient to say that Samantha’s love is an allegory for God’s. As the film unfolds, the spiritual parallels deepen, and the mystery becomes not why some people are given a second (or third, or fourth) chance but why some people respond to it while others become so hardened by some initial trauma or rejection as to be lost beyond love.
Conflict comes in the form of a juvenile drug dealer and small time crook who recruits Cyril for a job. Cyril’s reasons for taking it are both painfully obvious and maddeningly stupid. The fear we feel for him in the second half of the film is of a deeper, more spiritual variety than that of the first half of the film, since the eyes of experience know the probable consequences of the decisions he seems on the verge of only half-consciously making.
And yet if that was all there was–a lament about environmental determinism and for wasted lives–the film would be respectable but nothing special. One of the amazing things about the last two Dardenne films (the other being Lorna’s Silence) is that while I was sitting in my seat smugly congratulating myself for knowing, based on my familiarity with the directors’ previous works, how the last acts would unfold, they both managed to surprise me while remaining remarkably consistent with the brothers’ body of work.
The brothers Dardenne seem to me the antithesis of the old rube about using Western Union if you have a message for your film. They clearly think deeply about their subjects before beginning the writing process and (if the Q&A at Toronto is indicative) spend more time discussing between themselves what they want their films to mean than they do figuring out what they want to happen in them. This makes sense, of course, because the answers to the former question so often dictate what should happen. It is also why the films so often surprise. To the extent a Christian vision may be becoming more and more counter-cultural, plots that embody Christian themes, however opaquely, seem more and more un-conventional. (I use the term in the narrow sense of defying genre expectations.)
I suspect that there will be some critics who dislike The Kid With a Bike for many of the same reasons I hold it dear. The resolution to the film seems at first contrived, then a cheat. But it holds up to scrutiny better than a geek with total recall at a Star Trek convention, and the way it answers the questions it raises is both honest and, in many ways, profound.
“Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden.” -Robert Bresson