Few living filmmakers are as readily taken for granted, in certain cinephilic circles, as Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The steadiness and consistency of their workflow makes it easy to forget that each of their films is some kind of masterpiece in its own right. Perhaps this feeling of neglect is rooted in the same vague aversion to perceived repetition that has prevented the increasingly prolific Hong Sang-soo from finding great international success, where a sense of overarching similarity is mistaken for artistic stagnation. Like Hong, the Dardennes are what you might call cinematically territorial, establishing themselves within the self-imposed confines of a very particular milieu—the Belgian industrial town of Seraing and, in Lorna’s Silence, the nearby city of Liege—and continuing to mine the area for the rich social drama it regularly inspires. The films which result resemble variations on a theme, as a few fundamental ideas are repeated with minor changes in form and structure. The differences tend to be less pronounced than the similarities, but because of the rigor with which the Dardennes approach their vérité aesthetic, it’s precisely the subtlety of the recalibrations that makes them so striking.
The Kid with a Bike is typical of a Dardennes variation: Set once more in and around the streets of their beloved Seraing, it follows the titular child, Cyril (Thomas Doret), as he’s tentatively welcomed into the adoptive care of Samantha (Cécile de France), who cares for him in lieu of the father (Jérémie Renier) found to have coldly abandoned him. In its careful arrangement of wounded hearts and volatile personalities, the premise is quintessentially Dardennian, locating a rare pressure point for forgotten youth and lingering over its emotional repercussions. That the father is played by Renier, the most regular of the Dardennes’ rotating players, seems to further collapse the residue of feelings recalled by their earlier films into the latest dramatic fold, until the outcome of young Cyril’s blunt introduction to trauma is all but guaranteed. But the Dardennes, in a rare gesture of seemingly cosmic oversight, play the tone of The Kid with a Bike against type, transforming a bleak film into one more interested in humanity’s capacity for goodness and compassion even (or perhaps especially) when it presents itself as an opportunity without cause or reason.
Those warmer qualities—a far cry from the wearying miasma of betrayal, cowardice, and death that define much of the action across the Dardennes’ earlier films—are accompanied by the film’s notably warmer palette, whose rich hues and blasts of primary color lend the proceedings an unmistakable air of fantasy. The rare snatches of diegetic music which suddenly intrude on the narrative, likewise, betray a hopefulness for the future of these characters at odds with the stark, almost brutal reality of something like L’Enfant, in which the “happy ending,” such that it is, takes the form of a suggestion of redemption in the face of severe punishment. The Dardennes have always been humanists, of course, and the sensibility common to their films, despite an appearance of brutality, is a deep empathy that transcends simplistic moralizing; they have never been ones to judge their characters for actions that we may regard as terrible. Because while The Kid with a Bike often takes on the look and feel of a fairy tale, its interests are firmly grounded in the reality it so elegantly delineates—a reality as difficult to live in as it can be beautiful to endure. The point for the Dardennes isn’t to scrutinize the details of an unlikely rescue or a tragic fall from grace, but simply to soak in the life that lives through both or either, to see not action but its emotional and psychological consequences.
The Kid with a Bike is the most visually striking of Jeanne-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films, and Criterion’s new 2K digital transfer is, unsurprisingly, quite the technical marvel. Well-saturated colors bring out the warm palette of primary colors, while sharpness and detail look spectacular—a virtue particularly evident through the film’s many outdoor exteriors. Likewise, the disc’s 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack pipes dialogue in with crispness and clarity, and though the film itself is light on music or directional effects, what little is required sounds excellent.
For whatever reason, this stateside home-video release of The Kid with a Bike, much like the recent Rosetta edition, includes a dearth of bonus content, at least by Criterion’s high standards. Kent Jones’s interview with the Dardennes proves the obvious highlight, while two less substantial interviews with the stars feel more like padding. An essay by Geoff Andrew, included in the accompanying booklet, is unfortunately rather prosaic.
The Kid with a Bike, now deservedly inducted into the Criterion Collection, reconfirms Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s reputation as masters of the modern class drama.