Made over 50 years after François Truffaut’s French New Wave classic The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959), The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) is another French language film about an angry young boy who is not a child, but not yet a teenager either. Like 12-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in The 400 Blows, 11-year-old Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret) has little reason to care for the world of adults and is what from a distance would appear to be a ‘problem child’ or an ‘at risk youth’. Cyril is a bolt of energy, always dressed distinctively in a red t-shirt or jacket, who escapes from his foster home to find his father and his bike. While avoiding being caught Cyril grabs Samantha (Cécile De France), a local hairdresser, and the pair form a bond.
As with previous films by Belgian filmmaker brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid with a Bike is naturalistic, shot with handheld cameras and using available light. There is an unrehearsed rawness to the performances and much of the action appears to have been captured accidentally as if a camera just happened to be filming on the streets of the estate where the events take place. Part of the Dardenne brothers’ genius is how seamless their shots are, even though the frequent long takes and intricate visual elements within each frame could only be the product of careful planning and precise cinematography. The handheld camera in The Kid with a Bike is especially effective in its ability to follow Cyril, who is forever running or cycling throughout the film. There is a constant sense of movement and energy from within Cyril, both physically and emotionally, and the cinematography puts the audience in the place of the various other characters who are continuously trying to keep up with him. Because of Cyril’s unpredictability the sensation is sometimes nerve-wracking, but contrasting moments of stillness, especially in scenes when Samantha is able to connect with him, are tranquil and rewarding.
As well as a general focus on Belgian lower class characters, the Dardenne brothers have frequently explored the themes of redemption and the consequences of impulsive actions, which are again examined in The Kid with a Bike. An ongoing challenge for Cyril throughout the film is learning to take responsibility for what he does and to make better decisions. The film is never judgemental towards Cyril for his sometimes reckless and often bad tempered behaviour as he is after all an 11-year-old boy who has been abandoned by his father and has never had many reasons to trust adults.
The absent parent is another common element in films by the Dardennes and in The Kid with a Bike they cast Jérémie Renier as Cyril’s neglectful father Guy. It is a similar character to Bruno, the role Renier played in the 2005 Dardenne brothers film The Child (L’Enfant). He clearly has no interest in being a parent, is oblivious to the severity of turning his back on his own child and something of a coward in his avoidance of confronting Cyril directly to tell him that he no longer wants to see him. The scene where Cyril plays it cool around Guy while also trying to impress him is heartbreaking.
Much of Cyril’s behaviour is a result of his abandonment. The bike is the most tangible thing in his life that connects him to his father, resulting in his obsession with it. Through missing his father he is all too easily recruited by a local teenage gang leader who exploits Cyril’s desire to impress an older father figure. Most important is the mistrust Cyril has developed towards adults, resulting in a refusal to believe anything he is told unless he can see for himself or hear first hand. Samantha is able to earn Cyril’s trust as she seems to be the only character who understands this about him and as a result is completely honest and demands the same honesty from others.
Despite the film’s naturalistic aesthetics, the Dardenne brothers have included strong visual allusions to the lost child stories of folklore and fairy tales. While far subtler than the hyperactive imagery in Joe Wright’s Hanna (2011) a lot of the mise-en-scene in The Kid with the Bike evokes Little Red Riding Hood, which is frequently interpreted to be a tale about puberty and maturity. With his distinctive red top and being the appropriate age, Cyril is clearing the Red Riding Hood character while Samantha, who is frequently dressed in dark red and purple tones, acts as both his moral guide and protector. Like Red Riding Hood in charge of delivering food to grandma, Cyril is given shopping chores as part of developing a sense of responsibility. It is while on those chores that Cyril is lead off the path into the forest where he is tempted first by the wolf of the false-father gang member, and then later has to endure a far more high stakes encounter.
The slightly ambiguous ending does suggest that like Red Riding Hood emerging from the wolf’s belly, Cyril goes through a sort of rebirth in relation to a new found sense of maturity that can be directly linked to the nurturing shown by Samantha. If the haunting look Antoine gives the camera in the final shot of The 400 Blows is to question the audience about how adults should treat children like him and Cyril, then the compassion, patience and empathy Samantha displays in The Kid with a Bike may be that answer over 50 years later.