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Cecile de France Talks Not Giving a Performance for the Dardennes' 'Kid with a Bike'

Photo of Matt Mueller By Matt Mueller | Thompson on Hollywood March 17, 2012 at 7:30AM

Belgian-born actress Cecile de France has carved a successful career in France with roles in films like “Pot Luck,” “Haute Tension” and “Mesrine” to go along with rare Hollywood appearances in “Around The World In 80 Days” and Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter.” She gets her most engaging role in years in the Dardennes' “The Kid With A Bike."
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"The Kid with a Bike"
IFC Films "The Kid with a Bike"

Belgian-born actress Cecile de France has carved a successful career in France with roles in films like “Pot Luck,” “Haute Tension” and “Mesrine” to go along with rare Hollywood appearances in “Around The World In 80 Days” and Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter.” But she gets her most engaging role in years in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s “The Kid With A Bike,” which took the Jury Grand Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. As a kindly, small-town hairdresser who takes an unruly, stern-faced youth under her wing in the Dardennes’ fable, de France delivers a performance of such pure and benevolent simplicity, it’s a joy to behold and helps give the Belgian brothers the most uplifting film of their careers.

The Dardennes didn’t offer you any background for your character, Samantha. Did you manufacture your own back story?
No, I didn’t because I wanted to completely adapt myself to their way of directing. They said to me, “We have chosen you because you are very close to Samantha. Your face, your voice, your body, your light inside, the fact that we can see that you’re not holding the misery of the world on your shoulders – that’s all we need.” There is never psychology on a Dardenne brothers set. They said to me, “It’s a fairytale and in a fairytale we know nothing about the fairy.”

Did the lack of character specifics make it easier for you?
It’s new. Thomas [Doret], who plays the kid, was ahead of me because he was like a blank sheet of paper and this is a power when you work. That’s why the Dardennes use non-professional actors. This was their first time working with a well-known actress and I had to hold back my desire to do a performance, which I’ve done on every film before. Actors are always tempted to emphasise their acting, it’s normal. But on this film I couldn’t.

At one point your boyfriend in the film says, “It’s me or the kid”, and you choose the kid. You didn’t feel that needed an explanation?
It’s the fairy! We don’t know why. I honestly don’t have an answer and I didn’t build my own answer privately to be able to play this scene. You have to be a soldier when you work with the Dardennes. They make masterpieces so if they tell you, “Don’t think about that,” you don’t think about that.

You’ve built your career in France. How did it feel to be back working in Belgium?
I’m very Belgian and I will die Belgian. I just have my house in the north of France because I began my career in Paris, even though I don’t live there anymore. But I was very happy to be back in Belgium. I like that there is no star system there. No hairdressers, no make-up, no trailers. There is no privilege for actors.

Surely, though, hiring you was driven by their desire to tap into your star quality?
It’s their first film where there is a lot of hope, love, light, gentleness, sweetness… and a famous actress. They just want to try new things.

It was good to see you in Clint Eastwood’s 'Hereafter.' Would you like to work more often in Hollywood?
I don’t want a Hollywood career. It’s wonderful to have the possibility in your life just to win a role in a Clint Eastwood film and you are the happiest person in the world. But I’ve refused a few things. If they don’t meet my three criteria – a good character, a director who I’d love to work with, and a story that I want to defend – then I say no. Sometimes it’s hard to refuse things but I really want to be happy on the set.

Does that mean you’re relaxed about having time out of work?
Yes, I need it. I have a kid and a husband and my family and it’s important to live the real life. I don’t want to offer my whole life to cinema. It’s only cinema.


 

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.