Among cinephiles, the joke that greets a new film from Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is that—yawn—it’s just another excellent film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. After studying drama and philosophy, respectively, the brothers spent a decade and a half making documentaries. They’ve written off their first two narrative features, 1987’s Falsch and 1992’s I Think of You, as a rough start, but by 1996’s La Promesse they had nailed their style: a marriage of stark realism and classical drama, centered on Belgium’s lower class. Since then, they’ve won the Palme d’Or twice—for 1999’s Rosetta and 2005’s L’Enfant. Their others are equally worthy, arguably moreso, including 2002’s harrowing The Son and 2008’s darker-than-usual Lorna’s Silence. The story in their latest, The Kid With a Bike, is familiar Dardenne social consciousness: the protagonist is Cyril, an orphaned 11-year old (Thomas Doret) struggling to win back his errant father (Jérémie Renier) even as he gains a maternal figure in kindly salon owner Samantha (Cécile de France). And yet, unlike their other work, it was shot during the summer and features more than a soupcon of optimism. PW spoke with the brothers as Kid finally opens in America.
PW: There are several ways in which The Kid With a Bike distinguishes itself from your previous films, but one of the most obvious is that you shot during the summer. Historically your films have been overcast and dreary, but this is warm and sometimes even idyllic.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: We thought it was a story that had real warmth. In particular, the character of Samantha was very warm. We felt it needed the warmth of summer. There’s a scene toward the end when [SPOILER] the boy falls from a tree. We felt it better for him to fall from a tree that had leaves on it—that was alive rather than a winter tree.
PW: Although it adheres to the dark and naturalistic storytelling of the rest of your work, you’ve described this film as a fairy tale.
JPD: We didn’t realize that immediately. It sort of came as we went along. We realized as we were moving along that the characters were more and more simple. Samantha is particularly kind. Then we had this contrast between the woods and the city. We had to make clothing choices and we saw Cyril in red. And gradually he appeared to us as a little person from a fairy tale.
PW: Cyril is your youngest and most intense character since the lead in Rosetta. What motivated returning to that type of character?
Luc Dardenne: It’s true both he and Rosetta are in all of the scenes. They are continually in action. Rosetta has an obsession, and that obsession is work. Cyril’s obsession is being with his father. That makes them similar. But we weren’t consciously looking to do a comparison. It’s not part of our work process. We don’t decide we’re going to create a character that gravitates to this or that. We had a story about a child, something that happened in Japan. He was abandoned by his father. While we were working the character of Samantha emerged. We wanted Cyril to have this possibility of altering or shaping his destiny, which the boy from Japan didn’t have.
PW: Cyril seems reluctant to accept Samantha’s care, always gravitating toward his father or Wes, another toxic paternal figurehead.
JPD: With abandoned children, it’s very difficult to accept someone that loves you. It creates a conflict in terms of his loyalty. Cyril still hopes to be reconciled with his father, and in order for him to be loved by another person, his dad has to not be there. If he accepts Samantha’s love, it’s almost like saying his dad is dead. That’s a conflict abandoned children go through.
PW: Your films almost never feature music. The Kid With a Bike features four brief uses of the same Beethoven piece. Why break from tradition?
LD: [The music cues] were there in the screenplay. We felt the music was necessary. It was almost like a caress, a tender caress. In these moments, Cyril needs it, he needs this music.
PW: You’ve often worked with non-professional or budding actors. What were the challenges of working with a child lead actor?
LD: The thing with a child is you can’t direct a child. You have to create a climate that allows him to just be. One has to use what he does without saying, “Do this, do that.” And obviously [Thomas Moret] has talent. We were able to pick that up in the casting process. If you try to direct him or try to tell him what to do you run the danger of having him imitate you, and he loses the immediacy and spontaneity. The way we worked with Thomas was we started by rehearsing the physical acting in the film: the bike rides, the fights, the having to hold onto Samantha in the beginning. As we worked on that he became more relaxed. We wanted to create a climate around him where he didn’t feel he had to act. And he gradually saw we weren’t demanding our actors to overdramatize or “act.” We tried to keep it a musical sort of atmosphere for certain things to emerge.
JPD: We work with all of our actors the same way, whether they’re professional or amateurs, kid or adult: a lot of rehearsal at the beginning with the physical work, etc. Usually about a month or 40 days. We knead the actors, if you like. We macerate them. We turn them this way and that, upside down and rightside up, to get them to a place where he can naturally bring out of them the qualities we want.
Read our review of "The Kid WIth a Bike" here.
Eleven-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) is a whirling dervish whose boundless energy is largely spent on running, fighting and, most important, tracking down the father (Dardennes regular Jérémie Renier) who does not want him.