We are past the point of discussing whether or not Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are great directors. The debate now is how about great they are. With one superb film after another, including the likes of The Child and Rosetta, the Belgian native’s last picture Lorna’s Silence was considered, by some, to be a lackluster effort. If that’s the case, this is a steep curve we’re grading on. We might as well state that Paths of Glory is lesser Kubrick, or perhaps theorize why Polanski’s The Tenant was such a disappointment. The Dardennes’ latest is The Kid with a Bike, and those expecting nothing short of greatness from the filmmaking duo should be pleased; it might be the pair’s best work yet.
As is usually the case in the duo’s efforts, The Kid with a Bike is a simple tale told with its characters and themes in mind over a complicated narrative. The plot follows Cyril (Thomas Doret), an eleven-year-old boy whose father Guy (Dardenne regular Jeremie Renier) recently placed him in foster-care. Cyril is positive it’s merely a part-time residence as dear-old-dad gets a few things in order. Belligerent about seeing him, Cyril sneaks into his dad’s apartment complex, only to find that, just as people have told him, he’s no longer there. Hell, he even sold the tike’s beloved bike.
Cyril rabidly throws a fit, clinging to a woman and screaming he’s not letting go, nor is he willing to accept his father’s apparent departure. The woman, whose name is Samantha (Cecile De France), sees the pain in Cyril’s situation and opts to help. First she finds the boy’s bike, before letting Cyril stay with her on weekends.
Why Samantha does this isn’t important. It’s an act of genuine kindness, the type of which has rarely, if ever, been a part of Cyril’s life to this point. Of course, a kid whose childhood has been scrambled with poor parenting, one such gesture isn’t all it will take to turn a possible miscreant to a saint; it’s a start though.
The Kid with a Bike is told in the traditional Dardenne manner; heavy on the realism, light on the melodrama. The brothers have an uncanny knack on creating world’s that are immediately authentic, with the sound of city streets ever-humming in the background. Life isn’t stopping for these characters to live through their story, it moves forward, with or without them. That blunt naturalism works its way through Cyril and Samantha. Cyril is more than a cute moppet from the wrong side of the tracks, but a boy who will lie at a moment’s notice, trust you without hesitation and literally stab someone getting in his way. Doret is amazing as Cyril, with a softness that depicts his potential good and a boundless energy that hints at his inner shark, with a habitual need to constantly move forward, as if remaining still would cause death.
France’s Samantha is something else altogether. She is a multidimensional creation, one whose personal life is being thrown into disarray over her gesture to help Cyril. Yet, Samantha is, above all other things, a genuinely good person. France plays this earnest compassion with layers, helping it work so well. Samantha isn’t all smiles and hugs. When Cyril acts out or disappoints her, France’s face reveals every conflicting feeling of the moment. However, she is a genuinely good person, accepting of the challenges this new part of her life brings.
This warmth is a rarity in the Dardennes work; it’s flawlessly done. Music cues, which have been a big no-no in their filmography, are beautifully weaved in at peak breakthroughs in Cyril’s life, both of the positive and negative light. The sparring use only magnifies their impact. It’s especially stirring in its final use when a jarring turn of events takes place that feels like a response to the fable-like closing to Lorna’s Silence; a magical sequence that takes one’s breath away and is the perfect ending to a possibly perfect film.
The Kid with a Bike opens at SIFF’s Cinema Uptown today.