The Dardenne brothers’ penchant for naturalistic drama is astutely rendered in their latest work, The Kid With A Bike, set securely within their comfort zone: lower class suburban Belgium.
Emotional restraint and a steadfast avoidance of sentimentality make this an intriguing, strangely stirring film, starring a markedly low-key Cécile de France and a captivating performance by Thomas Doret in his first screen appearance as 11-year-old Cyril.
Set over a beautiful summer, which has the effect of eluding any overt melancholy, the film tells the story of Cyril, who resides in a children’s home, and his plan to find his father.
He meets Samantha (Cécile de France), a hairdresser and the mysterious martyr who agrees to take Cyril into her home at the weekends, remaining resolute even following the inevitable result of a disturbed child placed amidst a roomful of scissors.
Doret’s performance is astoundingly intelligent. His eyes are deep troubled pools set against a hardened, reticent face that betrays nothing. Constantly on the move, peddling to and fro, from estate to garage to forest, on the bike he associates with the idea of his father, his determination is riveting. It is also cleverly mirrored by the dogged nature of his minder, Samantha, whose persistent attempts at catching Cyril’s father’s attention equal those of Cyril himself.
We often observe tense lengthy visuals of Cyril simply cycling, with neither dialogue nor background music. The sparse soundtrack – a sporadic haunting refrain of three thumping orchestral chords – is far less frequent than the sole sound of breathing, peddling and tyres on tarmac that subtly builds the protagonist’s plaintive frustration.
The Dardennes thankfully avoid any disturbed child clichés; the character is played with measured restraint, and his distress is balanced with endearing boyish behaviour. His bragging cries of “regardez!” at the grown-ups when he does a wheelie, and wolfing down of hunks of malt loaf, which he leaves open on the kitchen counter, allow the audience to connect with him as an ordinary, if wounded, little boy.
Despite the artful narrative and characterisation, perhaps too many questions are left unanswered by the close of the film. What has caused Cyril’s father to become too “stressed” about his son ever to see him again, and why has Samantha given up her freedom and even her partner in order to look after such a strange creature? There is possibly too little implied about these two characters for us to draw our own conclusions, so we are left feeling almost as startled as Cyril is.