The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au vélo)

The Kid With a Bike
(Le gamin au vélo)
Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Stars: Thomas Doret (Cyril Catoul), Cécile De France (Samantha), Jérémie Renier (Guy Catoul), Fabrizio Rongione (Le libraire), Egon Di Mateo (Wes), Olivier Gourmet (Le patron du bar), Batiste Sornin (Educateur 1), Samuel De Rijk (Educateur 2), Carl Jadot (L’instituteur), Claudy Delfosse (L’homme gare de bus), Jean-Michel Balthazar (Le voisin Val Polet), Frédéric Dussenne (Le concierge), Myriem Akeddiou (L'assistante médicale), Sandra Raco (L’éducatrice), Hicham Slaoui (Le directeur)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2011 (Europe) / 2012 (U.S.)
Country: Belgium / France / Italy
The Kid With a Bike
The Kid With a BikeJean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) was advertised during its theatrical release with a one-sheet poster depicting the two protagonists, a thirtysomething hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile De France) and the titular bicycle-owning preteen Cyril (Thomas Doret), happily peddling down a cobblestone path next to a river beneath a gorgeously blue sky. The tone is joyful and carefree—in other words, exactly what the film itself is not. Like their previous films, including L’Enfant (2005) and Lorna’s Silence (2008), The Kid With a Bike is a hard, unsentimental, yet genuinely moving depiction of the hard-scrabble life of the underclass in Belgium, and if it isn’t quite as good as their earlier efforts, it may be only because their unadorned style and elliptical storytelling has begun to take on the kind a kind of comfortable familiarity that belies their complex interweaving of bitter reality and a deeply humane worldview that sees the possibility of redemption in even the cruelest of circumstances.

Unlike their earlier films (and as the title suggests), The Kid With a Bike focuses on a child protagonist. When we first meet tow-headed Cyril, who is 11 or 12 years old but has the gravity of a child aged beyond his years, he is living in a foster home and trying to call his father, who has moved and left no forwarding address. As children who look up to their parents are wont to do, Cyril refuses to believe that his father could have abandoned him, and he rejects (sometimes violently) any attempt by the adults around him to convince him otherwise. When he runs away from the foster home and tries to track down his father, his path crosses with Samantha, a hairdresser who is oddly and somewhat inexplicably sympathetic to his plight. When he latches onto her in a medical office waiting room in an attempt to keep the foster home counselors from taking him back, she tells him gently in a bit of prescient emotional foreshadowing, “You can hold onto me, just not so tight.”

Samantha ends up adopting Cyril on the weekends and helps him track down his dad (Jérémie Renier), who they eventually find working as a cook and trying to start a new life. (As is typical with the Dardenne brothers’ films, little if any backstory is supplied, so we are left to fill in the blanks as to why Cyril’s dad is so desperate to ditch him and start over, not to mention the whereabouts of his mother. The whole time I was watching the film, I was imagining it as a kind of sequel to L’Enfant, in which Renier played a small-time thief who sells his newborn son on the black market and then frantically tries to get him back.) Cyril is so desperate for a father figure in his life that he is willing to overlook the ugly truths about the way his father has treated him, including the symbolic selling of his beloved bicycle, which Samantha, in an equally symbolic gesture, tracks down and buys back for him (the centrality of the bicycle, both literally and figuratively, seems to be a purposeful allusion to Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist masterwork Bicycle Thieves, to which the Dardennes’ films are often compared).

Cyril’s desire for a male figure to look up to leads him into a relationship with Wes (Egon Di Mateo), the greasy leader of a local teenage gang who befriends Cyril by drawing him into his confidence and treating him to PlayStation games, soda, and the cool-sounding nickname “Pitbull,” which he bestows on Cyril to compliment his tenacity and willingness to fight for what’s his (they first meet when one of Wes’s underlings steals Cyril’s bike and the boy chases him down and tackles him for it). It is obvious from the start that Wes, despite his protestations about being unfairly labeled in his neighborhood as a drug dealer, has nothing but the worst intentions for Cyril, but the boy’s youth, naïveté, and desperation for some kind of father, literal or symbolic, blinds him to the realities around him and takes him down a path from which he might not return.

As in L’Enfant and Lorna’s Silence, we fear greatly for Cyril’s future and feel for him even as he acts terribly, lashing out against those who are trying to care for him and latching onto those who would hurt him. There is a particularly painful sequence in which Samantha tries to stop him from going out one night, knowing that he is headed for bad deeds with Wes, and Cyril fights her off with a desperate physicality that is difficult to watch. The Dardennes have proved in their previous films that they are amazing actor’s directors, and in The Kid With a Bike they demonstrate a fluency with child actors comparable to that of Truffaut and Spielberg. Thomas Doret, a complete unknown, is utterly convincing as Cyril, a gangly kid who could, with only a slight nudge, head down an exceedingly dark path. Yet, he has such an open face and a genuineness about him that we root for him, even when he’s at his worst; the Dardennes’ innate humanism ensures that we recognize his actions as despairing cries for help, rather than simply selfish violence.

Similarly, Cécile De France makes Samantha into a sympathetic soul whose willingness to endure Cyril’s abuse is admirable, rather than questionable. When Cyril asks her at one point why she agreed to take him on weekends, she honestly doesn’t have an answer, yet she doesn’t necessarily need to provide one. The Kid With a Bike is not about simple answers, but rather about messy truths, and how you view the film’s final moments, as either an implausible bit of plot manipulation or a deeply moving symbolic resurrection and testament to love’s abiding power, will say much about how effective the film has been.

The Kid With a Bike Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Kid With a Bike is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioFrench DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Video conversation between film critic Kent Jones and directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
  • Video interview with actor Cécile de France
  • Video interview with actor Thomas Doret
  • Return to Seraing documentary
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Geoff Andrew
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 12, 2013

    Criterion’s 2K digital transfer of The Kid With a Bike, which was taken from a 35mm interpositive and supervised by director of photography Alain Marcoen, looks very good. The image is clear and well-detailed and features nicely balanced colors while maintaining a distinctly filmlike texture. Like many of the Dardennes’ films, the color scheme tends to lean toward the earth tones and grays inherent in its urban setting, although there are strong intrusions of primary colors, as well (particularly Cyril’s prominent red shirt and jacket). The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio files and, although separation among the channels is very subtle, it works well with the material, creating a realistic sense of environment while keeping the dialogue and main sound effects clean and direct.
    As with Criterion’s previous releases of films by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid With a Bike includes a length video “conversation” with the filmmaking brothers, this one hosted by film critic Kent Jones. Running 73 minutes in length, it allows the Dardennes to go into great detail in discussing the origins of the project and its production, which helped me even better appreciate the film’s disarming artistry. The Dardennes also appear in Return to Seraing, an excellent half-hour documentary in which they revisit five locations from the film and discuss how and why they shot the scenes there. Also on the disc are video interviews with actors Cécile de France (17 minutes) and Thomas Doret (6 minutes), as well as the original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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