From the first minutes of "The Kid with a Bike," marked by an energetic shot of its young protagonist, Cyril, careening through a field and climbing over a fence, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's latest is an exercise in kinesis. It's not just that Cyril's always running: he's running away.
The Belgian duo's 2012 Cannes Grand Prix-winner, available this week on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection, stars Thomas Doret as the tough-minded, frustrated adolescent desperate to reconnect with the father (Jérémie Renier) who's abandoned him. He also wants his bike back: his father sold it to make some quick getaway cash, and with it Cyril's sense of possibility. It's as though Cyril, always streaming before the camera, believes that to stop moving is somehow to give up the chance to escape to a better life.
Yet for being somewhat lighter on its feet than the Dardennes' other work, moving fluidly alongside the cast as they tumble, fight, and chase, "The Kid with a Bike" reaffirms their long-time commitment to an anxious social realism. With echoes of the postwar Italian filmmakers Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti, and especially of Vittorio De Sica's classic "Bicycle Thieves" (1948), "The Kid with a Bike," like much of the Dardennes' other output, is an exceptionally moving portrait of a dark and troubled modern Europe.
Cinematically, the Dardennes live somewhere along the blurry line between prosperity and poverty — where every new sequence is a fresh invitation to disaster, and the characters' stumbling choices are exasperatingly honest. Taken in by a kindly salon owner (Cécile de France) whom he encounters during his first escape, for instance, Cyril continues the search for his father, asking around at the bar, the patisserie, the mechanic's shop. Cyril and his new guardian finally find dear old Dad prepping food at a friend's restaurant, and he turns out to be the inevitable let-down: no perfect villain to hate, no good guy on the road to reform, just a banal, dimly sad middle-aged man, a failed adult. ""I can't, it's too much for me," he tells her. "Seeing him stresses me out."
But as in "The Son" (2002), about a man (Olivier Gourmet) teaching carpentry to troubled youths in an unnamed Belgian city; or their breakout success, "La Promesse," (1996), about a teenager (Renier) who begins to see his father's exploitation of undocumented workers for what it is; or "L'Enfant" (2005), about young father Bruno (Renier), who sells his child to a black market adoption ring, the major part of the Dardennes' filmography isn't just stories of Belgium's modern underclass: it's the tale of lost boys of all ages. Cyril and his father are no different, always fleeing something. "The Kid with a Bike" is as concerned as any of these other films with the terrible momentum of human decisions, only it builds an aesthetic conceit — the bike — to mirror Cyril's psychic state.
I was also taken in, by its emotional vicissitudes. I was relieved — and I mean this mostly as a compliment — when the credits rolled. When a sweet-natured neighbor boy comes to see if Cyril wants to go the movies ("Come on, it's in 3-D," he says. "It'll be fun."), and Cyril refuses, preferring to hang out with a head of a local adolescent gang he's fallen in with, my heart broke. And yet, as the film rumbled along, every potential happy ending passing into memory, I began to feel too taken in. "The Kid with a Bike" builds an immense dread that something terrible is about to happen that becomes increasingly tiresome. Indeed, the final sequence plays out their vaunted "naturalism" a step too far, and came to seem cheaply manipulative rather than ambiguous or "real." Perhaps that was some of the relief I felt, or perhaps it was my sense that they had already used up their best ending.
It comes after Cyril returns to his father at the restaurant, and the handful of bars that comprise the score — the Dardennes' first use of non-diegetic music, as far as I know — quaver on the soundtrack once more. Cyril, bereft but increasingly aware that his real possibility for escape lay with Samantha now, hops on his bike once more. And he rides through the night, red jacket fluttering in the wind beside him, a lost boy trying to find his way home.
"The Kid with a Bike," "Rosetta," and La Promesse" are all available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection; "L'Enfant" is available on DVD from Amazon. Read TOH! contributor Matt Mueller's interview with Cécile de France here.