Film review – The Kid with a Bike (2011)

12 March 2012
The Kid with a Bike: Cyril (Thomas Doret) and Samanth (Cécile De France)

Cyril (Thomas Doret) and Samanth (Cécile De France)

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.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Summer Hours (2008)

3 April 2009
Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Frédéric (Charles Berling)

Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Frédéric (Charles Berling)

Summer Hours (L’Heure d’été) originally began as an initiative by Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. It was to be a short film that would have been part of a project examining the relationship between art and cinema. The full project never happened but French director Olivier Assayas (Clean, Irma Vep) went ahead with the original idea and made Summer Hours as a feature. The resulting film is gentle family drama that uses the dynamic between three siblings to explore the relationship between people and art. Summer Hours begins with the 75th birthday celebrations for Hélène (played by prolific French actor Edith Scob), the niece of a famous painter. Hélène’s country house is filled with her uncle’s extraordinary 19th century art collection, which she wants her three 40-something children to sell once she dies. Later when Hélène does die the siblings need to decide what to do. Frédéric (Charles Berling who also appear in Assayas’s demonlover and Les destinées sentimentales) wants to preserve his mother’s home and art collection but his brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier from In Bruges and L’Enfant) and sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) now live abroad and can’t see any reason not to sell everything.

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