Friday, May 23, 2014


I really want to love this film just as much as all the other art-house conesiuers did a few years back (the reviews were generally positive and it did win the grand jury prize at Cannes in 2011) but I just can't. It's not that I dislike the Dardenne's latest coming of age tale but I feel like I'm one of the very people aware of the film's existence that hasn’t put it on a pedestal since its release over two years ago. The Kid With A Bike is ok overall but its also pretty uneven. I've seen this coming of age story on the big screen numerous times already, especially in the case of the Dardenne Brothers. Why has no one ever called them out on essentially making a slight variation of the same story since Rosetta? I'm really not trying to sound like a dick, but if you're familiar with their work you know what I'm talking about. Almost every one of their films is the story of a lonely troubled teen (or immigrant prostitute) with shitty or no parents, living among the Belgian lower class trying to survive. And half the time there’s always a positive surrogate/parental figure trying to help the young teen in some way. The Kid With A Bike isn't any different...
The Dardenne's latest is the story of "Cyril" - a troubled pre-teen living in a foster home. On the weekends he stays with his part-time foster mother; "Samantha" (played by the wonderful Cecile De France) - a hairdresser with a heart of gold who genuinely cares about Cyril even at times when he makes her life a living hell. Although Cyril has a positive/non-dysfunctional parental figure in the form of Samantha, he still tries to seek out acceptance from the wrong people like his deadbeat father (played by Dardenne Brothers regular; Jeremie Renier) who clearly wants nothing to do with him and a local teenage criminal who takes Cyril under his wing.

Cyril has a strong attachment to his bicycle because it's the only gift his father ever got for him...

The Bicycle has become somewhat of a staple in arthouse cinema starting with the obvious Bicycle Thieves all the way up to more recent stuff like; The Cyclist Beijing Bicycle. The Kid With A Bike actually has a similar vibe to Bicycle Thieves so it's bound to make you think of the classic Italian film.
Although Cyril's bicycle becomes less important as the story goes on, it's what initially bonds him with Samantha (his parental figure). By a chance meeting early on in the story they cross paths with each other and Cyril takes a liking to her. Eventually he asks her to be his weekend foster parent and she agrees.
This is a part of the film that I found to be a bit random. I understand the instant bond that the Dardenne brothers wanted to create between Cyril & Samantha but it just seemed a little sudden that she would become his foster parent so quickly. 
...But maybe that part of the story doesn’t need an explanation. Perhaps I'm being picky. She could just be one of the rare human beings out there with a good heart and a soft spot for troubled kids.

This may quietly be Cecile De France's best performance. I get that she's most known for films like High Tension, The Spanish Apartment, Mesrine & Hereafter, but in terms of acting, she's pretty brilliant & natural in The Kid With A Bike. Her acting seemed effortless. This is the kind of female performance that could have easily been played way too emotionally with tons of crying & screaming but Cecile did the opposite.
No matter how many times Cyril pushes Samantha away or breaks her heart (especially towards the end of the film when he goes too far) she still remains strong & resilient and tries her best to show him love.

Cyril clutches to Samantha
Another gripe that I have with this film is the ending....or should I say endingS. For a movie that’s under 90 minutes, I don’t understand how it took so long for it to come to a close. It's difficult to talk specifics without giving away too much (this film is still fairly new and I'd prefer more people watch it while it's still streaming on Netflix) but there were two different places where The Kid With A Bike could have ended but The Dardenne's just kept going. The very last 10-15 minutes of this film went from being chaotic, to depressing, to happy, then suspenseful and then we finally got that abrupt Dardenne Brothers-style ending. They went in & out of too many moods too quickly to the point where it makes you feel schizophrenic. I also felt the young criminal character who takes Cyril under his wing was very transparent, cliché and bordered on feeling like an after school special. I wish the Dardenne's focused more on Cyril's father (there's only two scenes with Jeremie Renier). The Samantha character is also in a romantic relationship that starts to fall apart to due to Cyril's presence. Maybe they could have gone in to that a little more.

I still appreciate any film or filmmaker that shines a realistic light on youth and shows them as, to quote Todd Solondz from his 1996 Charlie Rose interview; "the complex human beings that they really are." No matter how many issues I have with the Dardenne's I still recognize that their intentions are good. They're one of the few filmmakers left that don’t portray children & teenagers as over-the top caricatures. 

There are other elements in the Dardenne's work that I love like the guerrilla/documentary-style cinematography and the presence of Olivier Gourmet (one of my current favorite actors and the Dardenne's most frequent collaborator). I also like that their cinema represents a working/lower-class society in a country that's often overlooked by outsiders when it comes to cinema. Let’s be honest, when it comes to French-language cinema, France obviously gets most of the attention. Sometimes I come across reviews of Belgian films that are incorrectly labeled as French films. The Dardenne's are an important voice for their country. I just think that if they tried something completely new from time to time and took a break from the depressing coming of age/"teens on the outs" genre that they wouldn’t seem so one dimensional and The Kid With The Bike would feel more fresh*. 
I remember back in my early 20's the Dardenne brothers felt like those important modern filmmakers I was supposed to like. I'm embarrassed to say this, but I used to kinda force myself to like their movies. They won all these awards (one of the few directors to win best picture at Cannes twice), Olivier Gourmet gave a great performance in The Sonand Rosetta, something I came to realize was extremely overrated a few years ago, did have an impact on Belgian culture outside of just cinema (the film, about a young teen girl working a minimum wage job, inspired the Belgian government to pass a new law which allowed teen workers to be paid higher wages). 
But a few years ago I found myself watching The Child (their 2005 Cannes best picture winner) and it just hit me - their movies are boring. That's a pretty shallow reason for not liking someone’s work but I'm sorry, I just can’t get in to their cinema like others do. Plus, if you know anything about me, you know "boring" movies usually don’t faze me. In fact, I often embrace them (See: PINNLAND EMPIRE Boring Masterpieces). But The Dardennes are usually the bad kind of boring. To confirm my newfound distaste for their work, The IFC Center just so happened to be doing a retrospective of their work a couple of years ago (in conjunction with the release of The Kid With A Bike) and I went to see Rosetta on the big screen. I used to love that movie in college. I thought it was a representation of what was "real" in Europe (I read a review back then that compared their cinema to John Cassavetes so that instantly made me a fan). But now that I'm in my 30's, it just all feels flat to me along with just about everything else they've done (with the exception of The Son). When I start watching something by them now I find myself wanting to watch a Maurice Pialat film instead.

I eventually came around to finding more legitimate reasons for not being crazy about the Dardenne Brothers (as you've already read) but it was The Pink Smoke's Chris Funderburg's scathing rant about The Child one night last year that pretty much hit the nail on the head for me. Obviously I don’t remember word for word what he said so I had him recreate his rant for this write-up...

The main crux of my argument is that they seek to advance a leftist/progressive social agenda that romances the poor and poverty at the expense of being honest about the nature of their characters. Their main method of getting an audience "on their side" is to have their difficult main characters be monosyllabic and frequently pursuing a single noble motivation (like looking for a job, trying to find their parent) while being passive in almost all other aspects of their life. They romance the notion of working class struggle at the expense of creating interesting and/or realistic characters - they make their characters quiet, inexpressive and inscrutable with opaque mental lives as a cheat. Audiences don't have to then deal with what human beings are like in real life and can say "aw, everybody should have the right to work" or "foster kids just need a compassionate system" - I don't precisely disagree with them, but they essentially lie to make their argument. - Chris Funderberg 11/09/13

Chris' rant also ties in to some other subconscious (borderline unfair) issues I have with The Kid With A Bike. In it, Jeremie Renier plays Cyril's father. Years before that, Renier played an immature teen dad in The Child (at one point in the film he actually tries to sell his baby). As I watched Renier be a horrible father in The Kid With A Bike I couldn't help but think he was playing an older version of the same character he did years ago in The Child which causes me to think that character never matured and it makes me hate The Child even more.

Top: The Son / The 400 Blows
Bottom: L'Enfance Nue / Nenette & Boni

Thomas Doret's debut performance as Cyril is pretty great in my opinion. He's fearless & precocious yet insecure & sad at the same time. With his blank stare (like Nenette in Nenette & Boni), outbursts of rage (like Francois in L'Enfance Nue) & his age (12, just like Antoine Danielle in The 400 Blows), he's like a mixture of every French-speaking coming of age character through the years. But more than anything, he reminds me of Francis from The Son which is the one exception to my indifference towards the Dardenne's work. The character of Francis in The Son almost feels like what Cyril's life would have turned out to be had he not found Samantha in his pre-teens. I guess that's why I don't hate The Kid With The A Bike at the end of the day. It's most connected to the one Dardenne Brothers film that I consider to be a masterpiece.
I'd much prefer The Son be someone's introduction to The Dardenne's but I wouldn't be mad at The Kid With A Bike being an entryway to their work either.


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