A pivotal scene in the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid With a Bike sees young Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret) sprint into a doctor’s office after absconding from his children’s home. Several patients are waiting to see the doctor when this skinny blond whirlwind in a red jacket flies in, knocks one woman off her chair and clings to her tightly as his guardians try and prise him away. Cyril is eventually calmed down and escorted from the room but he leaves a big impression on the woman, Samantha (Cécile De France), who subsequently takes him into her care and provides the sort of dependable adult influence he so badly craves.
The scene is important not only for introducing the two lead characters to each other but also for the way in which it plays out. It exemplifies the economy with which the Dardennes operate and their unwavering loyalty to Cyril.
The camera is set up with the reception desk on the immediate left but it’s already focused on the door to the right as Cyril limps through it, feigning injury. It follows him as he approaches the desk and it pans between him and the receptionist as they exchange a few words. Cyril turns to look at the door and then, as he darts to the back of the room, the camera pans to catch the entrance of the men who are looking for him. They approach Cyril, who is now using a yellow plastic children’s chair as a defensive shield, and as one of them goes to grab him he slips to the right and dives at Samantha, who has been sat near the door the whole time. Cyril throws his arms around her, the force of his embrace knocking her to the floor. The camera follows them as they fall and it stays on them as Samantha asks Cyril to ease his grip and his carers implore him to let go of her altogether. Eventually, with the promise that they will take him straight to his father’s apartment, Cyril relents. He lets go of Samantha and exits with the men.
The vital thing here and throughout the film is that we’re entirely by Cyril’s side. It means that we’re also on his side, even though he is a hard kid to love. He alone is the focus of the scene. The camera goes where Cyril goes. It looks where he looks. But it remains calm. It offers no judgement, only the kind of stability that has eluded Cyril in his short life so far. The Kid With a Bike is a story that only the Dardennes brothers could film. Like much of their work, it has a fighter at its centre but not necessarily a winning one, yet it is the fight itself which they believe important.
Jérémie Renier, acting in his third Dardenne brothers film, plays Cyril’s dad, Guy, a man who doesn’t have the stomach to tell his son that he doesn’t want him in his life. Even when this is made clear to Cyril he refuses to accept it. The distrust he has of everyone around him – especially adults – is established in the very first scene, when he tries to call his father’s apartment but can hear only a dead line at the other end. He is convinced that the man who dialled the number for him did so incorrectly. The only alternative is that Cyril’s father moved out without telling him and the boy is unwilling to consider the thought. As we find out in the next scene, however, that is exactly what has happened. Not only that but Guy has sold Cyril’s beloved bike and left nothing but peeling wallpaper behind.
This refusal to accept his father’s rejection culminates in a heart-breaking scene in which Cyril tries to provide Guy with what he thinks he needs the most: money. Like the scene in the doctor’s office, this is not flagged as particularly important in the way it is filmed but to reflect on the thought processes that must have led Cyril to his father’s door, cash in hand, is to realise the extent of the boy’s desire to be loved and his inability to understand why he isn’t.
Each time Cyril meets with his father he is disappointed and each time, as Cyril pedals away on his bike, a musical refrain stirs to life, a brief phrase from Beethoven’s piano concerto No.5, ‘Emperor.’ The music is conspicuous because it is used so sparingly, a repeated break from the film’s characteristic realism. It lacks subtlety but the notes are so effective in encouraging sympathy for Cyril that we can forgive the manipulation. These passages signal new chapters for him and with each one he awakens a little more to the truth of his father. Like the Dardennes’ later Two Days, One Night (2014), the conclusion of The Kid With a Bike is ambiguous, yet as the end credits roll Beethoven’s piano concerto is allowed to flourish beyond the few bars that recur at earlier points in the film. And for the first time Cyril rides out of the frame on his bike, leaving the camera behind. The music suggests he’s won some freedom from his anxieties but he has learnt some tough lessons in order to do so.
Original title: Le gamin au vélo
Country: Belgium, France, Italy
Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring: Thomas Doret, Cécile de France, Jérémie Renier
Runtime: 87 minutes
More by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Two Days, One Night (2014) – The Belgian directors strike a rare collaboration with a major star in this deeply personal story about a woman fighting to keep her job. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, an emotionally fragile, recently unemployed factory worker who has to suffer the indignity of trying to convince her ex-colleagues to have her back at the expense of the bonus payment they are all due to receive.