CIFF 2011: The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo, 2011)

Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Much has been made of depicting the Dardenne brothers as working-class heroes, surveying as they have economically marginal men, women, and children in their intimate, documentary-like feature films. For me, however, the Dardennes are anthropologists of the family. While extended families in the form of grandparents get their due—in The Kid with a Bike, a dead grandmother will spawn the crisis that catalyzes the plot—it is the nuclear family that seems to interest them the most.

The prevalence of foster families, both official and unofficial, in their films might suggest the economic component of their characters’ milieu, but the real investigation, it seems to me, is what kinds of people are or are not able to give of themselves to others. For example, the father in The Son was truly a father or he would not have been able to keep his heart open to a boy he wanted, at one point, to kill. The father in L’Enfant, on the other hand, was more interested in money than his own child, and was willing to make a devil’s bargain to avoid his parental role.

Guy Catoul (Jérémie Renier), the single parent in The Kid with a Bike, is a man who has put his son Cyril (Thomas Doret) in a children’s home after Cyril’s grandmother has died. The opening scene shows a defiant Cyril trying to phone his father, only to get an automated message that the number has been disconnected. His counselor (Carl Jadot), whom Cyril accuses of dialing the wrong number, says his father has moved. Cyril refuses to believe it (“He would have brought my bike to me!”) and desperately makes a break from the counselor and the other supervisors to go see Guy. He arrives at his father’s last address, an apartment in a council-housing estate, but can’t get in. The counselor catches up with him, and Cyril runs into the estate’s medical office and clings to a woman to avoid capture. He calms down only after the building superintendant agrees to let him into the apartment. It’s empty, and defeated, Cyril returns to the home.

A few days later, the woman Cyril grabbed, Samantha (Cécile De France), shows up at the home with his bike, which she bought from the man who bought it from Guy. After identifying the bike as his, Cyril says it must have been stolen. As Samantha drives off, Cyril races on his bike to catch up with her. He asks her if he can stay with her on the weekends; she agrees.

On his first weekend staying with Samantha at her hair salon/home, Cyril rides his bike all over town to his father’s various haunts, asking if anyone knows where Guy has moved. His last stop is at a mechanic’s shop where his father used to bring his motorcycle. The mechanic (Mourad Maimuni) says he tried to sell the motorcycle and a boy’s bike, and put a for-sale sign in the shop window. “Maybe the address is on the ad,” the mechanic says. Now confronted with the fact that his father did indeed sell his bike, Cyril’s mood is clouded and uncertain. His search for his father will eventually succeed, but he will be in for a rude awakening—his father, trying to wipe the slate of his life clean and start again, tells Cyril to go away and not come back.

A commenter on this site once said, “The Dardennes are a pair that confound me because I can’t quite figure out how they do what they do. They communicate to the viewer such rich emotion and information with such little design or spectacle.” I’ve given that comment a lot of thought, particularly with regard to this film, and I think I have a start at an answer. In truth, there is a real design to their films, and it is in the landscape of the human face they focus so closely and intently upon. Abetting this image of eternal fascination to human beings are the deeply committed performances the directors get from their cast. Young Thomas Doret throws himself into this role, and I mean that quite literally. He hurdles through doorways and down stairs, pedals with a furious purpose on his bike, relentlessly chases and wrestles with a boy who steals his bike, and punches and scratches his own face in anger and grief after being rejected by his father. He’s incredibly vulnerable—an easy recruit for Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a drug dealer and former children’s home dweller himself—and yet his intensity and anger are rather scary.

Whereas Guy is the Dardennes’ usual bad father, Samantha is, as her name suggests, a kind of samaritan. Cyril asks her why she agreed to take him in, and she can only answer “I don’t know.” It isn’t easy to understand why this woman would take a half-grown problem child on, and he certainly isn’t easy for her to handle. But she does, and even dumps her boyfriend Gilles (Laurent Caron) when he makes her choose between him and Cyril. Is she a born nurturer? Does she see someone she knew in Cyril? Is she someone who steps up to the plate because she can? Sometimes doing the right thing is just that simple, but, of course, she will have no guarantees that Cyril will turn out fine. He has obviously had a history that will make the future rocky at times, but Samantha seems willing to love him anyway.

A small touch has entered the Dardennes’ work, and that is music—short grace notes at crucial moments in the film that quite reminded me of the use of brief interludes from Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor in Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped. It would not be a stretch to imagine that Bresson was an influence on the Dardennes. In contrast with Bresson’s increased pessimism, however, the Dardennes seem to be feeling more hopeful about the future. The Kid with a Bike is very nearly a feel-good movie.

The Kid with a Bike will screen Saturday, October 8, 5:15 p.m., and Sunday, October 9, 5:00 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)

  • Colin spoke:
    27th/09/2011 to 11:26 am

    Mmm, I saw this the other day. It may be beneath me to say so (and it’s certainly beneath this site) but I couldn’t shake the feeling that all I really wanted to do was to smack some sense into the kid… I’m guessing fostering is not a profession I’d do well in.

  • Colin spoke:
    27th/09/2011 to 11:27 am

    Incidentally (sorry, I can’t edit my previous comment), I know nothing about the Dardennes other than this film. Where should I start?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/09/2011 to 11:29 am

    Colin – You sound like Gilles. And I don’t think the kid lacked sense, just that his world had changed so rapidly on him that he was reeling. His grandmother dies (no mom in the picture, I guess), his father moves him into a group home, then abandons him, then tells him to his face to get lost. I’d say his sense was overruled by his emotions.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/09/2011 to 11:29 am

    Colin – I think The Son (Le Fils) is really their masterpiece. Try that one.

  • Colin spoke:
    27th/09/2011 to 12:24 pm

    Thanks. It’s added to the list. I understand what you’re saying about the kid being disoriented, (some of this happens before his Dad’s rejection, though) but I got so frustrated at him legging it whenever he didn’t fancy being somewhere. Good film, for me, but not great. I may come back to it after seeing more of their work.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/09/2011 to 12:29 pm

    I actually don’t think it’s their best work, but it’s better than “minor” Dardennes. The relative optimism of the film is jarring to those of us who know their work (I’ve seen all but two of their major films), and thus it might be easy to dismiss it. But I like the focus on doing good without being grudging about it, which is a departure from their recent films.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    27th/09/2011 to 9:58 pm

    Wow, this really must be the crown jewel of the festival. A towering review of an essential work by one of contemporary cinema’s most celebrated artists. My own favorite Dardenne is ROSETTA, but I love LE FILS, LA PROMESSE and L’ENFANT. Interesting that they’ve opted here with a bit of classical music. Sounds great! Can’t wait!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/09/2011 to 10:13 pm

    Sam – I don’t know if it is the crown jewel, with Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Wim Wenders Pina, Johnnie To’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Ralph Fiennes directorial debut Coriolanus, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Claude Lelouch’s From One Film to Another, and many more auspicious filmmakers on the roster. But it certainly was one I was mighty happy to see.

    The music isn’t exactly classical – it’s classical-like, quiet piano work written for this film. It’s a lovely little touch that I’d love to ask the directors about.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    28th/09/2011 to 6:49 am

    Marilyn, I was unawares that those others were on tap. That’s an entirely different situation then. The Von Trier of course is hugely anticipated, and I’ve been most intrigued about that CORIOLANUS for quite some time.

  • tom hyland spoke:
    10th/10/2011 to 9:41 pm


    Lovely analysis of this film, which I also saw at the CIFF last week (maybe we were at the same press screening?). I also loved it and will review it soon.

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