Something that, on the surface, looks startlingly new, slowly reveals itself to be something surprisingly familiar and not all that effective in the latest film from the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Their Cannes competition film “The Kid With a Bike” is the arthouse equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
The unusually short film, which clocks in at a brisk 87 minutes, contains many elements that are entirely new to the Dardenne universe. This seems to suggest that the filmmaking brothers realized that their cinema, perfected in such bleak and color-drained features as “Rosetta” and “The Child,” both a Palme d’Or winner, was in need of new direction.
Firstly, “The Kid With a Bike” was shot in summer, a first for the directors. The production design, until now always completely functional and almost colorless, here favors saturated, almost gaudy hues both indoors and out, where lush summer-time greens dominate.
There are also some brief snippets of a quasi-religious classical score that punctuate the proceedings.
And the lead role is played by Cécile De France (“Hereafter”), a bona-fide Belgian star not from their own stable (though Jérémie Renier co-stars and fellow Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet has a bit part as a bartender).
What is familiar is the young child protagonist, Cyril, here played by newcomer Thomas Doret. He follows in the footsteps of Renier, who debuted in the Dardennes’ “La Promesse” as a young teen and, in what feels like a nice sense of continuity in the directors’ filmography, here plays the 11-year-old boy’s father, Guy. One could almost imagine this being “The Child: Ten Years Later.”
The main motor of the narrative is the fact that young Cyril, dressed in a firetruck-red shirt, has been placed in a care center for young teens because his dad feels that can’t look after him anymore. Cyril doesn’t want to believe that his dad, who’s recovering from a difficult period, has abandoned him there and desperately tries to contact him, though he has moved and his phone has been disconnected. Partly, Cyril’s disbelief stems from the fact that Guy finds it impossible to just simply tell his own son that he feels that, in order for him to get ahead, he can’t take care of Cyril.
Cécile De France plays Samantha, a sprightly and straightforward hairdresser who lives nearby and comes into contact with Cyril by chance. The bike of the title keeps getting stolen and is the prop that connects Cyril and Samantha, who takes pity on this young and easily angry boy who just wants to see and talk to his father, which even puts her own relationship under strain.
Despite the many visual novelties the brothers have introduced, from a strictly narrative point of view, the film’s first hour is simply an extension of their universe. A young boy needs to face the realities of the adult world a little too soon. A hairdresser finds that showing kindness to a child without asking for anything in return does her good. A father needs to get on with his life and decides to take responsibility for his actions. So far, so Dardenne.
So what we have here is basically a typical Dardenne narrative dressed up in a way we hadn’t seen before. The story itself is familiar but credible enough, and even finds that moment of grace that is so typical of all Dardenne films. This small scene between Cyril and Samantha, just outside her storefront, is effective and touching in that Dardenne way and offers a nice sense of closure.
The problem is, the scene occurs only about an hour in, leaving the remainder of the film dangling as something of an unwieldy epilogue, with a series of awkwardly written and executed scenes that seem to be suggest Cyril needed a form of karmic payback for some of his rash, rascal-ish actions (which begs the question: how much can an abandoned and angry 11-year-old boy be blamed for his actions)?
This entire violence-begets-violence scenario feels way off in terms of not only what preceded it, but the Dardenne universe in general. The film’s second ending, again involving the titular bike, feels rather perfunctory and carries none of the emotional undertow of that earlier scene between Cyril and Samantha. Obviously, the writer-directors haven’t quite figured out how to juxtapose an entirely decent human being with their need to make a small boy pay for his actions.
Acting, like in all Dardenne films, can’t be faulted, and De France occasionally even sounds refreshingly Belgian (in French films she usually has a flat, non-regional French accent). However, her character’s consistently sunny, Mother Teresa-like disposition might be a tad much for lovers of bleaker fare.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A U.S. distributor will pick this up because of niche arthouse audiences’ familiarity with the Dardenne brand. But returns won’t match the brothers’ best efforts.