Modern cinema’s poet laureates of working-class marginalization and spiritual crises, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are also bona fide motion-picture makers whose works bristle with the kind of propulsive thrust that would have had pure action pioneers like Raoul Walsh or Allan Dwan taking notes. By the time their rough-and-tumble fable The Kid with a Bike comes to its conclusion, the Belgian brothers have turned the screen into a veritable map of zigzagging activity in which the little red shirt zipping across the frame becomes a visual emblem as kinetic in its own way as the most vertiginous forms in Tony Scott’s breathless technocratic canvases. The difference is that a restless stylist like Scott would have zeroed in on this red shirt mainly as an icon to be whipped around a larger design of color and movement, while the Dardennes, tough and ardent humanists with a fierce control of cinema, remain focused first and foremost on the character wearing it, and on the emotional turmoil besieging him.
Per usual, the Dardennes introduce a conflict and jump right in, with subsequent details gradually illuminating the narrative. Thus we meet 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) in an orphanage office, clutching a telephone receiver as if hanging on to a life raft, with the camera (positioned at his height and close to his face) framing the adults around him as half-obscured torsos and disembodied voices. Despite the recordings he keeps reaching on the phone and the explanations the grown-ups keep repeating, Cyril resoundingly rejects the idea that his father has left him behind, instead embarking on an almost autistically single-minded search for the vanished parent and for his beloved bike. Breaking out of the orphanage, running in and out of corridors and climbing trees and fences, the young protagonist is like a half-feral critter whose nonstop motion barely conceals the fact that he’s running in circles, propelled by sheer anger and confusion. It’s fitting, then, that the film’s first turning point arrives in a moment of abrupt stasis as the runaway boy finds himself desperately hugging a hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile de France) at a doctor’s office. “You can hold on to me,” she calmly says while counselors struggle to pry the impromptu pietà apart, “but not so tight.”
That Cyril’s dad, once finally tracked down, turns out to be a deadbeat played by Jérémie Renier—who portrayed a similarly fraught young father in the Dardennes’ L’Enfant and, even more pointedly, a confused, impulsive youngster in their feature debut La Promesse—attests to the filmmakers’ sense of thematic continuity not only from film to film, but also from generation to generation. (The extra-textual notion of Renier’s acting trajectory from children failed by their fathers to hapless fathers who fail their children is but one of The Kid with a Bike’s unstressed but unmistakable hints of familial disintegration tragically perpetuating itself.) And yet, here as in Lorna’s Silence, the Dardennes continue to introduce subtly and fascinatingly stylized elements into the gritty realism of their films’ environments, beginning with Samantha’s reaction to Cyril’s embrace—a guarded but beatific gesture that introduces her both as a no-nonsense woman grown accustomed to a rough world, and as something a bit more…celestial. Just as Samantha glides through the film as a mix of hardboiled guardian and glowing fairy godmother (a blend enhanced by de France’s presence as an established movie star amid the mostly nonprofessional cast), so does the neighbourhood drug dealer (Egon Di Mateo) simultaneously suggest the lost, hardened boy that Cyril may become and a foxy trickster out of Pinocchio.
If The Kid with a Bike is a fairy tale, it’s the unsentimental kind that locates the dark enchantment in characters discovering themselves during their most despairing moments. Still, it’s certainly the Dardennes’ fleetest, warmest film to date: Working with their customary cinematographer Alain Marcoen, they use Seraing during summertime as a sharp contrast to the dumpy, industrial patches of Liege which had previously set the stage for their ferocious allegories of morality and redemption. And even as it punctuates the story with Bressonian throbs of classical music and insinuates the talismanic dimension of Cyril’s bike (a nod to oft-repeated comparisons between the brothers and Italian neo-realist filmmakers?), the film displays a heartening airiness that purifies any hint of portentousness. Brightening their vision without diluting it, the Dardennes build steadily toward an ending that, while seemingly a “happy” one, squeezes the heart with its view of the sudden, furtive acts of revenge and compassion that make or break people and, as in their best work, lift rough-hewn realism into the realm of cinematic transcendence.