A great many things can be said of the extraordinary body of cinematic work created by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, but let’s start at the very beginning by noting its rare and utter consistency. Admittedly, the brothers started out making documentaries and only really found themselves as fully fledged artists after two flawed—albeit inevitably, in retrospect, fascinating—narrative features. But ever since the creative rethink that produced their third, La promesse (1996), the Belgian duo have determinedly ploughed their own furrow in such a way that a Dardenne film is now as distinctive and immediately recognizable as one by Ozu or Rohmer. The consistency is there not only in their choice of setting, stories, actors, theme, and style but also in their remarkably high level of artistic achievement.
Since their very next feature, Rosetta (1999), carried off the Cannes Palme d’Or, the juries at that festival alone have awarded the Dardennes’ films a best actor prize (The Son, 2002), a second Palme d’Or (L’enfant, 2005), a best screenplay prize (Lorna’s Silence, 2008), and the Grand Prix (The Kid with a Bike, 2011)—in the last case meaning that the film shared (with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) the second prize as runner-up to what was a virtual shoo-in in the shape of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. That’s no mean achievement for a pair who chose—it seems almost to have been a manifesto, unwritten save for perhaps obliquely in the published excerpts from Luc’s very illuminating diaries—to work on modest budgets, with first-time or unstarry actors, repeatedly setting their studies of vulnerable, underprivileged, or troubled outsiders in the industrial town of Seraing (or, in the case of Lorna’s Silence, in the hardly more picturesque city of Liège), in the region where the brothers were born and grew up.
As the Dardennes’ dazzling track record demonstrates, consistency needn’t mean predictability or creative stagnancy. It’s not just Ozu and Rohmer who demonstrated the range of artistic riches that may be unearthed by returning to and exploring the same territory; one might also point to figures as different as Angelopoulos and Woody Allen, or, moving beyond movies, Shostakovich, Miró, and Jane Austen. Some seem to regard artistic practice almost as a form of global travel, a chance to experience the world in all its wide, exotic variety; others stick to their own patch, which may afford knowledge of a deeper kind, an empathetic understanding built up over time. That intimate acquaintance—with people, place, politics, economics, history, and social custom—also allows for great variation; the diversity lies in the detail.
It’s possible, of course, to imagine the parameters of the archetypal Dardenne film: set largely on the streets of Seraing, shot in a fluent yet functional realist style, with an often highly mobile camera, and lasting around ninety minutes, it would trace the waves of wary trust and suspicion, conflict and hesitant attraction arising between a few working-class or somehow marginalized characters, possibly of different generations. Nevertheless, the fact remains that each film feels surprisingly different from its predecessors. Notwithstanding the brothers’ habit of casting certain actors again and again (sometimes in minor roles)—most notably, Jérémie Renier, but also Olivier Gourmet and Fabrizio Rongione—the experience of watching a Dardenne film invariably seems fresh. That’s partly due to their cinematic and dramaturgical expertise, partly because they’ve never rested on their laurels. They’re constantly looking for ways of ringing the changes, but in such a manner that the fundamental integrity of what they want to do isn’t compromised. Lorna’s Silence was a particular case in point, not so much because it shifted location from Seraing to Liège but because of its narrative audacity; one very important plot development—the death of a central character—was not only not shown but, after a genuinely unsettling ellipsis during which the death occurred, was still not even mentioned for a while. The effect was shocking and deeply disquieting—appropriately so, in that it enabled us to understand more clearly what another character might be feeling about that death. (Apologies for the vagueness here, but I don’t want to spoil things for anyone still to see this very fine film.)
At first sight, The Kid with a Bike might appear to be more in the vein of the earlier films than its immediate predecessor. Once again, it’s set in Seraing, though this time the protagonist is even younger than the kids in La promesse, Rosetta, The Son, and L’enfant. Cyril (Thomas Doret) is an eleven-year-old who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, refuses to believe that his father, Guy (Renier), has abandoned him, sold the boy’s beloved bike, and moved away on the proceeds without leaving an address. In his frantic attempts to escape his care-home wardens, he encounters Samantha (Cécile de France), a total stranger who responds to his appeals for help first by going off to find his bike, then by allowing him to visit her on weekends. The hairdresser’s decision to offer Cyril help and care doesn’t diminish his resolve to find and live once more with his dad, nor does it stop him from falling in with a potentially far more sinister surrogate parent in the shape of Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a local teenager whom Samantha suspects of dealing drugs.
So the scene is set for one more suspenseful, deeply affecting drama of everyday life in Seraing. But, as ever, there’s nothing remotely predictable or formulaic about the film. Its biggest risk, surely, is that no explanation is given for Samantha’s decision to look after Cyril; even when he asks why she responded to his appeal for help, she admits that she herself doesn’t know. Nor do the Dardennes hint at any underlying reason for her actions; there’s no trite suggestion that she might have lost a child, is desperately lonely or seeking some kind of private, personal redemption. She simply and unselfishly replies with a “yes” to the boy’s “please.” We must take it on trust that she’s sufficiently kind and strong to give up some time in her life for Cyril. The Dardennes have likened the film to a fairy tale, with its unconflicted characters (in contrast to Samantha, we have the treacherously weak Guy and the calculatingly exploitative Wes) and perilous forest where the driven but vulnerable child protagonist is overshadowed and almost swallowed up by towering trees. To integrate these faint but resonant echoes of fairy-tale tropes into a contemporary realist narrative takes great skill, and the Dardennes succeed; the film feels as credible as anything they’ve made.
And while it’s utterly Dardennian from its immediately gripping beginning to its characteristically quiet end, it also feels new. That’s not entirely due to its fairy-tale aspects. For example, the brothers chose—to some extent because, for plot-related reasons, they wanted the aforementioned trees to be in leaf—to shoot in summer, and in the suburbs (as opposed to the built-up center of Seraing featured in the earlier films), a combination that brings a thematically appropriate, more immediately felt atmosphere of warmth to the film. And for the first time, they cast someone who might be considered a star, Cécile de France, who had recently appeared in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. Such status doesn’t preclude being a fine actor, of course, and de France was considered for the role of Samantha partly because she hails from the Seraing region and could speak with the right accent, partly because she has a cinematic presence that exudes warmth and openness, which makes sense for the character she plays and complements the use of a verdant, airy milieu.
But perhaps the most significant “new” element in the film is the use of nondiegetic music. Minutes into the story, as Cyril sleeps, we hear a few bars from the Adagio of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto; we hear exactly the same brief excerpt again at two further points in the film (each after an upsetting encounter with his father), and then again at the end, when the music doesn’t stop but continues over the closing credits. The Dardennes have said they chose this music because of “its consoling tenderness”; they wanted to remind the viewer what’s absent from Cyril’s life, what he’s seeking, and what Samantha might offer: love.
The Beethoven adagio is notable for its becalmed beauty, and indeed, Cyril’s quest for love—first from his father and then, perhaps, from Wes, the “bad” surrogate—is also a search for a home and peace. The music evokes a gentler, more restful world than the profoundly unstable one Cyril knows and that is depicted for most of the film. The Kid with a Bike is kinetic even by the standards of Rosetta and L’enfant. Typically, it starts in medias res, with Cyril refusing to accept that he can’t get through to his father on the phone because he’s left their former apartment; almost at once, he’s off, out of the frame, embarking on a film-long odyssey of running, climbing staircases, clambering over walls, cycling, running again, constantly seeking. Doret’s enormous energy is put to superb use in conveying Cyril’s predicament, but so are the fluid camera work and extremely elastic editing; this is probably the paciest of all the Dardennes’ films. The titular bike is crucial: as a gift taken back and sold by the father, as the means whereby the duplicitous Wes wins the boy’s trust, and also as a physical manifestation of Cyril’s resolve—unbending, obsessive, resourceful in its intelligence.
If the film is a fairy tale, it’s one like The Night of the Hunter, in which another strong woman unquestioningly proffers a haven to innocent, vulnerable souls threatened by a charming but merciless father substitute. But the Dardennes’ film, true to their profoundly materialist take on metaphysical matters, is worlds away from the oneiric expressionism of Laughton’s marvel; they know the nightmare can exist here and now, in the everyday. Cyril, always in a fiery red T-shirt or jacket (as opposed to Samantha’s softer palette), needs to find not only his place in the world but also his pace; he needs to slow down. At their first encounter, his headlong rush knocks Samantha from a chair to the floor; her response is just to sit there, letting him cling to her as if his life depended on it. Rocklike, she offers the option of rest, though she too knows how to cycle—not as escape, quest, or expression of angry frustration but for pleasure. Cyril must learn to change gear, adapt his speed to the world around him; Samantha, firm but flexible, shows him not how to seek but how to be.
Geoff Andrew is head of film programming at London’s BFI Southbank and has written extensively on film, including books on Nicholas Ray, Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, and American independent filmmaking. For the Criterion Collection, he has contributed essays and commentaries on Eric Rohmer, Yasujiro Ozu, Nicholas Ray, and Jean-Pierre Melville.