Film: The Kid With A Bike
‘A precocious, fair-haired young boy seeks a form of redemption after the loss of a father figure, in a European-helmed film’ . . . sounds a lot like the blurb for nauseating Stephen Frears schmaltz-fest Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In fact, The Kid With a Bike is the latest from Belgian social realist auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and depicts a rather bleaker world. A working-class milieu, an infusion of criminality and characteristic naturalism mean that, for aficionados of the Dardennes, this might seem like familiar territory trodden in slightly different shoes. Even so, it’s a thoroughly engaging tale.
We open in medias res with Cyril Catoul—the kid of the title—stubbornly trying to dial an out-of-service phone number. Over the clipped, lively series of scenes that follow, it is breathlessly established that Cyril is trying to reach his father, who has apparently disappeared without word to his son, who in his absence is unhappily ensconced in a children’s home. With Cyril dashing determinedly about in a search for clues and yet impeded at every turn, the film almost sets up in these early stages like a whodunit; there’s an air of suspicion about the way no one seems willing to help him find papa, perhaps suggesting some kind of foul play. But though there are twists, they aren’t of a Hollywood ilk, and nor are the Dardennes going to hold your hand. The withholding of information is merely emblematic of a deeply elliptical narrative. One scene, for example, ends with Cyril brusquely entreating kindly hairdresser Samantha to foster him on weekends; in the next he is alone, on his bike, and receives a phone call that obliquely clarifies that this arrangement has indeed taken place. It’s a storytelling style that’s largely as curt and to-the-point as its surly young protagonist, simply requiring you to keep up and fill in the gaps. Moreover, it’s an approach that eschews dramatic irony to good effect, aligning us with Cyril by rarely allowing us any more narrative insight than him.
Once Cyril has begun his weekend routine at Samantha’s, more information on his father’s whereabouts comes to light, and the film snakes agonizingly towards a truly heartbreaking moment somewhere around the halfway point. There’s something of a change of tack, and suddenly Cyril is consorting with ‘Wes’: the smarmy ringleader of a local gang of youths (apparently played by the bully from every 80s high school movie), who plies him with the kind of attention usually only dished out to little boys by Catholic priests. Cyril is evidently being groomed for something unsavoury, threatening to disrupt the fragile stability he’s found with Samantha.
Newcomer Thomas Doret is astounding as Cyril. A tragic hero of sorts, he vehemently rejects alternate father figures in the shape of a counsellor at the orphanage and Samantha’s boyfriend Gilles, maintaining a stoic sense of optimism towards his own father and their potential reunion. This naivety is the only recognisably childish thing about him—the only exception to his otherwise perpetually steely-eyed, obstinate demeanour. Indeed, it’s Cyril’s hardened lack of innocence that’s among the most distressing aspects of the film.
Cécile de France, too, is excellent as surrogate mother Samantha, exhibiting a touching and convincing concern for her new charge. There’s a fairly jarring element of implausibility in her immediate willingness to foster tearaway Cyril, after having only briefly met him during a struggle with his care home guardians in a doctor’s waiting room—an implausibility that’s made more conspicuous by the hostile responses Cyril seems to elicit from every other adult character. A later confrontation with Gilles arrives in similarly abrupt, almost contrived fashion, with no expository justification. But again it’s simply a mark of the Kid With a Bike’s elliptical style, and the film sweeps along at such a pace that there’s little time to have too many misgivings over feasibility. It’s actually testament both to the performances and to the Dardennes’ proficiency as filmmakers that they’re able to generate the degree of emotional resonance they do with such tersely developed characters.
Into the final act, the road gets pretty bumpy; for the last half hour the film wheels crazily about, veering almost schizophrenically from crisis to repose and back to crisis—and from a shaky, ethically-suspect conciliation between Cyril and Samantha to a sudden, heart-stopping climax—before finally drawing to a dazed conclusion. As it plays itself out with a Beethoven piano concerto, it’s difficult to quite grasp how the story has managed to get to where it ends from where it started, and how so much has been crammed into a tight 87 minutes. It feels hurried, but there’s still enough time to feel genuinely moved.
The Kid With a Bike is out from Friday 23 March.