Transitioning from an early career making documentaries, the Dardennes, since 1996, have assembled a series of films that are enough alike, and radically different even from the main line of festival cinema, as to seem to have their own brand. Like Hong Sang-soo, or Eric Rohmer, or Yasujiro Ozu, part of the effort in processing Dardenne’s movies is, once you’re past the hump of figuring out how to deal with them, distinguishing one film from another and assembling the larger picture of their art. Some impatient festivalgoers greeted the brothers’ latest, The Kid with a Bike, with a kind of “Oh, you,” admitting they’d made yet another good film but, cautiously (or not so cautiously), accusing them of resting on “the Dardennes schtick.”
Seeing the film at the 49th New York Film Festival, it was surprising to learn (although it should not have been) that The Kid with a Bike is pretty amazing. Having not started off with the Dardennes on the right foot, back in 1999 with Rosetta, I’m relieved that I’m well past my initial aversion to their distinct, yet unmistakable, version of film grammar. The Kid with a Bike remains formally consistent with the Dardennes’ previous triumphs, from La Promesse onward, its handheld camera moving quickly, but frequently not quickly enough to capture crucial events or acts of violence. The milieu remains the same, as does the on-the-margins, desperate atmosphere.
Bike’s protagonist, a near-feral child who spends much of the picture running away from adults who are trying to care for him or look after him, has the kind of enormous reserves of energy you only find in young children or those afflicted with an all-consuming obsession. The Dardennes’ camera, always in motion, moves at the tempo of their protagonist’s inner life. Sometimes this indicates a planner, a schemer, a cautious soul: Le fils and Lorna’s Silence. In Bike, like Rosetta and long passages of L’Enfant, the Dardennes press the gas pedal to the floor, making an action movie of sorts, even if the action is mental as much as it is kinetic, Cyril (the kid of the title) making snap decisions and acting on them in the same instant, not always wisely, but thoroughly and (in his own worldview) scrupulously.
The film is awash with extraordinary moments, as it never ceases to amaze me how films of such seemingly, deliberately limited means could express a wide, varied spectrum of emotions. The Dardennes at this point warrant comparison with Robert Bresson, another artist whose work seems characterized by subtraction and suppression but who consequently produces art of inimitable tactility, weight, and emotional heft. The addition of a musical refrain in Bike – famously, the Dardennes avoid using a film score – seems to invoke A Man Escaped.
For the first time, however, the Dardennes forego their usual practice of building the entire film around a single, subjective experience, instead constructing around Cyril a large cast of orbiting characters, each with his or her own life, decisions, and plans. This lends the movie a Dickensian quality – parallels with Oliver Twist should escape no one – but also a pleasurably prismatic one, gradually pulling back the curtain to reveal the world the kid occupies and whose values he’ll inherit. It’s crucial, I think, that at the end of the film Cyril can be said to have been saved by the decision not to pursue a retributive action, as a natural outgrowth of having been cared for and loved by a responsible adult. Credit is due the Dardennes for a final shot that, nevertheless, is imbued by the shock of violence.