Wednesday, October 12, 2011

VIFF 2011: “The Kid with a Bike”

The Dardennes brothers were never one for elaborate filmmaking. These Belgian directors make quietly shattering films on life amongst marginal groups in their hometown, showing how circumstance and terrible judgment can lead to horrible consequences. Past two-time winners of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, their latest feature The Kid with a Bike won the Grand Jury Prize this year (second behind only The Tree of Life) and is screened this week at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Cyril Catouil (Thomas Doret) is an eleven-year-old boy who loves to ride bikes. His ne’er-do-well father has gone missing. A local hairdresser, Samantha (Hereafter’s Cécile de France), takes him in on weekends, in order to give him structure and keep him out of trouble. She first meets him as he takes shelter from social workers in a medical office, telling him as he clings to her, “not so tight. You can hold onto me but not so tight.” This becomes a metaphor for their often difficult relationship. Over the course of the film, she takes him to see his father, who no longer wants anything to do with the boy, and is often tested by Cyril’s tempestuous nature and penchant for running away, only to return after enduring further humiliations on the playground. Partway through the film, seeking a paternal figure and rebelling against the otherwise convivial and patient Samantha, Cyril is taken under the wing of a local thug and is tempted by a life of petty crime.

Although most coming-of-age films revolve around sexual awakening, The Kid with a Bike focuses instead on early exposure to ethical and moral dilemmas that are often only faced in young adulthood. It’s not often that you get to see youth this young grapple with career defining, life-altering decisions, but Cyril confronts them head-on. It’s not uncommon for the Dardennes to examine this topic, given that their earlier works such as Rosetta, Le Fils and L’Enfant explore the difficulties of life in lower middle-class Belgium. The film has shades of Vittorio de Sica’s classic The Bicycle Thief, down to its very title, as they explore how human nature is governed and tampered by survival instincts. Anyone having worked with disadvantaged or troubled youth will recognize and acknowledge Cyril’s raw anger and sense of abandonment, manifesting itself in criminal tendencies. Social workers and caregivers will also understand Samantha’s frustration in attempting to provide Cyril with a normal life, and his resistance to it. The Dardennes don’t judge Cyril’s actions, they only observe them, and allow the consequences to flow from them without heavy-handed melodramatics, allowing him to experience them and understand them himself.

There are moments when the film is unexpectedly shocking. I am thinking of a conversation between two characters in the film whose dialogue is morally perverse, couched in situational ethics and moral relativism. That nothing has presaged this exchange – the Dardennes shun the use of symbolic imagery or foreboding music to foreshadow what’s coming – makes it even more shocking. (You’ll know what I mean when you see it.) The directors use their trademark lean, sparse presentation style so that what occurs is so matter-of-fact that it’s naturalistic, and will unexpectedly follow you out of the cinema. It makes a seemingly straightforward coming-of-age tale into a dark morality play, albeit a slightly more optimistic one than the Dardennes’ previous work. You won’t forget about this kid or his bike anytime soon.

The Kid with a Bike is one of the best-reviewed and most accomplished films of the year. It will play back-to-back screenings on Friday, October 14, as the closing entry of the Vancouver International Film Festival. The film is in French with English subtitles. For more information, click here