Like clockwork they appear every three years: a new masterwork from Belgians Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, each a tale of the country’s lower class that weds intense naturalism to drama that’s downright classical. Occasionally they net Palme d’Ors. This consistency has produced the inevitable, albeit glib, claim of redundancy; the joke among cinephiles is how boring it is they’ve made another great film. Honestly, gritty social realism, air-tight moral quandaries and general excellence are all their films have in common. Taking only the last decade: The Son is a claustrophobic revenge tale that spends the first half hour perched over its lead’s shoulder; L’Enfant concerns a man selling his newborn on the black market; Lorna’s Silence dives into the underworld while their usually restless camera rarely moves.
The Kid With a Bike, their latest, features their youngest and scrappiest protagonist since 1999’s Rosetta. 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. It’s also their warmest, (literally) brightest and most optimistic film. Seraing, the filmmakers’ hometown and regular shooting spot, is typically presented by them as an overcast industrial wasteland. But Kid was filmed during the summer, and the breeziness offers positive contrast to the frequent negativity of the plot.
Add to the plus column the inclusion of Samantha (Cécile de France), the 30ish, no-nonsense salon owner who whimsically volunteers herself as Cyril’s part-time guardian. Cyril repeatedly resists Samantha, instead turning to a local hood (Egon Di Mateo) who woos him with Assassin’s Creed on PS3. Cyril’s reluctance to give into maternal overtures, even as paternal figures repeatedly fail him, lends Kid a more-than-faint feminist bent. But it’s dangerous to read too much political commentary into the Dardennes work; as a conservative friend pointed out, despite the social consciousness, the film’s kindest character is a petit bourgeoisie. You can’t even trust the optimism: Kid’s final seconds may offer hope, but it’s ambiguous, and it immediately follows a moment where we learn two characters we’ve known as victims are capable of casual evil. Thinking you have the Dardennes pegged—to say nothing of underrating them—only gets you in trouble.
Read our interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne here.
The story in their latest, The Kid With a Bike, is familiar Dardenne social consciousness: the protagonist is Cyril, an orphaned 11-year old struggling to win back his errant father even as he gains a maternal figure in kindly salon owner Samantha.