Beethoven is not a baseball bat, and it’s a bad sign when listening to him feels like being hit over the head. Belgian’s Dardenne brothers, writer/producer/director partners Jean-Pierre and Luc, are commonly described as taking a purist approach to music in their films, restricting themselves in the main to source music. (That is, music that is audible in the film’s reality, as when a character plays the piano or switches on the radio, rather than music only the audience hear.) I knew this when I sat down to watch The Kid with a Bike; I also knew the film has been massively well-received since its release, both internationally and at the New Zealand International Film Festival last year.
It’s so hard to tease out the influence of high expectations when a film is in the process of driving you crazy. I think I would have had a bad initial reaction to the Dardenne style, and certainly to the way they abuse poor Beethoven, whatever I had gone into the theatre expecting. A couple of my scribbled notes-to-self: “Now the kid is hunched up in bed. Serious/tragic symphonic music washes over us. Too much”; “Why am I not liking this? Does this kid exist except as a personified predicament?”
The kid is called Cyril. He’s gingerhaired, 10 or 11 years old, and he’s nearly always hunched, as though trying to turn his body into a protective carapace. Thomas Doret, who plays him, conveys so much anger and frustration with his body language you spend a large part of the film on edge, wishing he’d relax. He’s hunched over a phone when we first see him, doggedly ignoring the man standing next to him, who’s insisting he hang up. We quickly glean that his father has left him in a state care facility, “only for a little while”, and that the number Cyril refuses to stop calling has been disconnected. The inference is cruelly obvious, but not to Cyril, who sees only that something has happened to his father, and that no one will help him find out what.
Enter Samantha (Cécile De France), a chance-met stranger who sees at one glance what Cyril needs and, out of straightforward goodness, chooses to give it to him. She tracks down his father and goes to considerable trouble to force him to meet his son. She lets Cyril come to live with her at the weekends. When her boyfriend, having met Cyril twice, reponds to his suspicious glowers by telling Samantha, “It’shim or me,” she replies simply, “It’s him.”
Synopsis inevitably involves oversimplification, but in this case not by much. The striking thing about the film is how pared down everything is; you will not come away from it with much more information about Samantha’s boyfriend than I’ve given you, and the Dardennes are happy to ignore a lot of seemingly significant questions. (Where, for instance, is Cyril’s mother?) Although they appear to be practising a highly disciplined form of social realism, they’re actually making something much closer to a fable. “We were made to get along,” says the drug dealer who attempts to lead Cyril astray in the final act, and it feels too true for comfort: these characters are interlocking sets of traits, precision-crafted to fit into the hollow spaces of a modern morality tale. They’re not actually people.
And yet. There’s so much real pain in Cyril’s angry hunch and, in the end, so much rich reality to his relationship with Samantha. The great wave of tragic Beethoven that bursts in on us several times when Cyril is at his lowest ebb, insisting we feel things we’re already feeling, seems to exemplify the Dardennes’ desire to over-control their material. But they do ultimately allow Doret and De France to create a relationship with real emotional power. I spent the first two-thirds of this film wishing I could respond to it more. I spent the final scenes on the verge of tears.
THE KID WITH A BIKE, directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.