Petty thieves, tenement scrabblers, haunted laborers—outcasts abound in the worlds captured by the inquisitive, often suffocatingly immediate camera of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Renowned for such unforgettable portraits of morality and redemption as The Son and L'Enfant, the Belgian filmmakers survey their characters' struggles with humanistic urgency and a documentary attention to details while introducing elements of spiritual allegory into the naturalistic fabric of their narratives, fascinatingly complicating their image as gritty neo-realists. Described by them as a fairy tale, their latest film, The Kid with a Bike, finds the brothers brightening their vision without diluting it, charting the growing affection between an abandoned boy (newcomer Thomas Doret) and a hairdresser (Cécile De France) with a warm yet unsentimental eye. Mise-en-scène choices, improvised pietàs, and the leading lady's driving arrangements were a few of the topics discussed when Slant sat down with the Dardennes at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Slant: Where did the idea for The Kid with a Bike come from?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: From Japan. We were there promoting The Son, and we met a judge who told us about a kid who had been dropped off in a foster home by his father, who told him he would be back when he had more money. And he never came back. We talked a lot about building it into an earlier story, but we never succeeded. It finally came together when we introduced the idea of the boy into the story of another character, that of Samantha. So instead of just telling the tale of an abandoned child, we decided to work on one of two people being changed by being brought together.
Slant: I've always marveled at how in your films we as viewers are immediately thrust into the struggles of characters. In the very first scene, with Cyril clutching on to the telephone, we're swept along with him.
Luc Dardenne: We spent a lot of time discussing the choice of framing for that scene, because it would be the basis for much of the style of the rest of the film. Cyril is alone, the camera is positioned lower than usual at the child's eye level. We hear their voices as adult characters enter the frame, and then we only see part of them as they try to relate to the boy. It's a specific selection of mise-en-scène, of course, and through it we as an audience begin to adapt our gaze. For much of the earlier parts of the film, he's practically alone on the screen, cut off from everybody else.
Slant: There's an almost autistic intensity to his search for his father. He doesn't seem to notice anybody or anything else in the world.
JPD: It's sheer obsession. It contributes to his loneliness, and it's something that only begins to change and Cyril becomes closer to the world around him when he forgets his father and accepts Samantha's love.
Slant: And when he does find his father, it's telling that he's played by Jérémie Renier, who played a different troubled boy in La Promesse 15 years ago.
LD: The young actor, Thomas Doret, who's really marvelous, was very much looking forward to the scenes when he could interact with Jérémie. He knew he was an actor who had started when he was 13, and he really looked up to him.
Slant: I think the casting creates links between your films, in our knowledge of the way Renier has moved to uneasy father figures here and in L'Enfant, for instance, or in Olivier Gourmet's small but important appearances.
JPD: For us this is totally an unconscious thing, but I believe such links can be created in the minds of the spectators. We didn't have Jérémie playing the bad father because he played the son in La Promesse, but because he immediately struck us as the ideal actor for the role. We've known him for years, naturally, and it's always a pleasure to see how creatively he tackles the part. And with Olivier, we've developed such an instinctual working relationship that we barely have to direct him at all, he knows precisely what we want.
Slant: I'm amazed at how propulsive the film is. There's a vivid forward push, with Cyril constantly running across the screen and riding his bike up and down, with the camera trying to keep up. It's so strong that only gradually do we realize that he's basically running in circles.
LD: That's an intriguing observation. We liked the idea of a character so fixated on something that he's pure movement even as he's stuck emotionally. In moments like when Cyril is in the car and suddenly starts scratching his own face, it's like he's rebelling against having to stand still. And when he's showing off his bike-riding skills to Samantha, his movements have purpose and are less frantic and more graceful. Thomas was supposed to do only one of those bike tricks but he kept going and showing off to Cécile [De France], and we loved it and decided to keep it in.
Slant: When the boy first meets Samantha and hugs her very desperately, she calmly says, "You can hold me, but not so tight." It's a line that took my breath away, because it's a rather stylized moment surrounded by this very harsh realism.
JPD: The strange thing is that that moment was actually improvised. The two actors were brought together for the first time in that scene, and we found ourselves with this sudden, rather Christian image. The kid's desperation and this stranger's serene sympathy.
Slant: How did the character of Samantha develop?
LD: She's an interesting woman, we think. Why does she take in a boy she's only seen once, in that scene you mentioned? We think it's because of the contact that she had with him, something strong that leads to her decision and she doesn't try to analyze it. In a way, she's very much like the fairy godmother in an enchanted tale. It's a difficult character, a little bit, because she's open to ridicule. It's easier and even more exciting to film someone who kills people than someone who's selfless, who helps people.
Slant: There's a luminous quality to Cécile de France's performance. But it's a practical kind. Her character is not obviously maternal, she's quite guarded.
JPD: Yes, we very much wanted that combination.
Slant: As a popular movie star, she's very interestingly integrated in a cast of mostly nonprofessional players.
JPD: She was excellent with the rest of the cast, rehearsing for weeks with the boy and having lunch together during the shoot. She didn't have her private car, so she'd walk to the set or ride along with us in our car. She joked about us punishing her. [laughs]
LD: Riding together wasn't easy for us, either. [Both laugh]
JPD: And she was very generous in her scenes with Thomas, especially the ones with lots of struggle. We like physical conflict in our films, the way actors use their bodies, and we feel that they become freer during these times.