“We tend to think that the closer one gets to the cup, to the hand, to the mouth whose lips are drinking, the more one will be able to feel something invisible—a dimension we want to follow and which would be otherwise less present in the film… Perhaps by filming the gesture as precisely as possible you can render apprehensible that which is not seen.”
— Luc Dardenne, “Taking the Measure of Human Relationships”, Cineaste (Summer 2003)
The Dardennes’ create a cinema of gestures and objects. From the very opening of The Kid with a Bike we watch Cyril (Thomas Doret), a runt in his early teens, clutch onto a phone as he calls his estranged father, Guy (Jérémie Renier). He grips the phone close to his chest, head bent as if in fetal position intently awaiting his father’s voice but instead receiving the canned message that the line has been disconnected. As the social worker attempts to pry the phone from Cyril’s grip, Cyril bites his hand, a primal instinct surfacing in the moment as Cyril futilely attempts to preserve his connection with his father no matter how tentative and self-deluded. This is all filmed in medium close-up with a handheld camera so Cyril’s every gesture unsettles the frame with his anxiety and desperation.
As Luc Dardenne suggests in the epigraph, the Dardennes’ intense concentration upon the material reality of objects and gestures reveals a quixotic desire to plunge so far into reality that one is able to seize the ineffable, something that the medium of cinema can only approach. Jean-Pierre notes during an interview supplied as an extra on this DVD that the characters’ feelings “come out with the relationships they have with certain objects.”
Bottles, for example, play a privileged role in The Kid with a Bike. They are often used to cement Cyril’s relationship with others. When Samantha (Cécile de France), Cyril’s foster parent, drives him to see his father, she offers him a bottle of water. The camera located in the back seat initially cuts back and forth between Cyril and Samantha sitting in front. But as Samantha offers the bottle of water, the cutting stops with the camera now moving back and forth between Samantha and Cyril engaged in a playful tug-of-war for the bottle of water. The presence of the bottle breaks the isolation between both characters and suggests a bonding between them revealed in part by Cyril’s smile.
Similarly, when Cyril visits his dad at the restaurant, he is offered a drink. Music at first pumps loudly over the restaurant speakers, insulating Guy from the gravity of the situation: confronting the son he abandoned months before. But since he can’t understand Cyril’s request for a specific drink, he must turn off the music and thus engage more directly with Cyril. He hands Cyril some juice. They both remained framed awkwardly in a two-shot as they stare at each other while Cyril drinks from a somewhat small bottle, suggesting a regression taking place. This is further reinforced by Jean-Pierre and Luc’s observation during their interview on the DVD that it took them many tries to find the right sized bottle for Cyril to drink from when meeting his dad.
Finally, when Cyril meets Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a local teenage drug dealer, he is invited back to Wes’s place to play video games and drink soda. Wes hands Cyril a Fanta, and they both click cans while looking at each other in a two-shot. This bond through objects is further reinforced as Wes offers advice to Cyril while playing a first-person shooter game. Wes’s mentoring role for Cyril becomes embodied through their mutual game play. Yet Wes’ suspect role as mentor also gets exposed through his advice on how properly kill his on-screen enemies, something that will become literalized later when Wes recruits Cyril to knock-out a local newspaper vendor with a baseball bat in order to rob him.
Needless to say, the bike Cyril rides becomes a privileged object throughout the film, too. It is both a gift from his father and a symbol of his father’s betrayal in that Guy sells the bike without Cyril’s knowledge. Samantha initially connects with Cyril by finding his bike and returning it to him. Finally, Wes lures Cyril into his grasp by having one of his teenage cronies steal Cyril’s bike to force Cyril to follow the thief back to Wes’s haunt in the woods.
Yet aside from all of these practical plot points that connect Cyril to others through the bike, the imagery of Cyril riding wildly throughout the film becomes profoundly moving. For example, Wes abandons Cyril after his assistance in knocking out the newspaper vendor. Lost with a wad of money, Cyril returns to the restaurant where his father works to offer him his share of the loot. Although it’s never mentioned, one gets the sense that Cyril’s desire to offer his father the money is his attempt to reconnect with his father who earlier stated that he lacked the funds to be with Cyril right now. Guy rejects Cyril’s offer and tells him never to return. Completely lost without his literal and surrogate fathers, Cyril climbs onto his bike and rides into the night.
We watch him pedaling frantically, his red jacket blowing behind him. The sound of the ambient background noises of night in the city play over Cyril’s image. He pedals frantically, not knowing where he is going. The image continues for over a minute. We feel Cyril’s isolation and desperation with his every move. He is alone in the world, moving but without a destination. He has become unmoored from what he knew and is at a stage of either complete disintegration or renewal. The sequence concludes by watching him return to Samantha to ask for her forgiveness and request that she adopt him.
In many ways, Cyril’s return to Samantha emphasizes how he must reject the world of men that consistently disappoints him due to their own childish self-involvement. Guy wants to recreate a new life and feels that the only way he can do so is by rejecting Cyril. Furthermore, he cannot even tell Cyril that he no longer wants to see him and attempts to force Samantha to relay this message instead, which she rejects.
Wes simply befriends Cyril to become a partner in crime that he can then discard after his service is rendered. This becomes apparent in the insistent way that Wes demands that Cyril take his share of the loot. By reducing their relationship to a simple financial exchange, Wes attempts to circumvent the complexities of their relationship. Even Samantha’s boyfriend stupidly vies with Cyril by giving Samantha the ultimatum: “It’s either me or him.” Samantha choses Cyril.
When Cyril questions Samantha regarding her desire to be with him, she simply replies, “Because you asked me.” When he further asks why she agreed, she simply states, “I don’t know.” The film indicates that this not knowing is perhaps the best option since it doesn’t taint their relationship with explicit ulterior motives. They seem to enjoy one another’s presence, which gets reinforced at the film’s ending as Cyril finally gets Samantha on a bike. No longer a lone figure, Cyril now has a riding partner who shares the frame with him and contrasts against the imagery of the empty night of abandonment mentioned earlier.
In some ways, The Kid with a Bike is the Dardennes’ most sentimental film, not in any melodramatic sense. First of all, its use of non-diegetic music seems to soften the harsh naturalism of the filmmaking at times. Jean-Pierre describes the brief musical interlude by Beethoven “like a caress Cyril needs but doesn’t get.” The music suggests the filmmakers’ deep connection to their character and desire to nurture him in ways that the film proper does not successfully offer.
Secondarily, the film offers a genuine relationship between two people without all the countervailing emotions that normally plague all of the Dardennes’ other films. Samantha is somewhat saintly in the film. Cyril’s continuous disobedience would most likely try any adult’s patience, but Samantha remains mainly resolute in her decision to be with him.
The Kid with a Bike might somewhat be veering into simplistic gender stereotypes with Samantha’s natural maternal function overriding the men’s egotistical and childish desires. But since it never explicitly states Samantha’s desire to be with Cyril, it might have little-or-nothing to do with her gender. And even if it does has something to do with her gender, the reasons might not be as altruistic as first appear. Perhaps she has always wanted a child but could never have one. Perhaps she had a child that died. The film’s aporia regarding this becomes its strength in somewhat problematizing a too easy duality between female and male figures throughout it.
Criterion, as always, provides a fantastic transfer of the film and offers a series of extras comprised of interviews with the filmmakers and the two main actors Thomas Doret and Cécile de France. The Dardenne interviews are particularly revealing since they show how much thought and labor go into making the film “not seem over directed”, as Jean-Pierre notes. It’s through this highly labored yet naturalistic filmmaking that the Dardennes approximate the deep undercurrents of emotions that undergird our every action and transform a simple bicycle into what will be one kid’s lifeline.