So many European art house films try and reel us in with their intriguing, ambiguous titles; Breathless, L’Argent, 8 1/2, Cléo from 5 to 7, Belle de Jour. But, as George Osborne likes to say, ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’. So thumbs up to the Dardenne brothers for having the stones to state the damn obvious. The Kid with a Bike is about a kid with a bike. Nothing less, not a lot more.
The kid in question is Cyril. Eleven years old, his brow is creased into a permanent furrow, his body pitched forward and always ready to run. He lives as if ceaselessly pursued, or trapped, or as if somewhere else might offer some sort of sanctity. It is only the semblance of balance on a bike that seems to offer a semblance of balance in life. And that’s probably fair enough. Performed by newcomer Thomas Doret, Cyril lives in a state-run orphanage in the Belgian town of Seraing. His mother remains absent and unmentioned, his father Guy (Jérémie Renier), still in possession of the titular bike, has segmented his old life and started afresh.
The Kid With a Bike is a cruel inversion of that other two-wheeled fable – De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. There, in post-war depression Italy, a father must do all he can to prove his worth to his son. Here the roles are reversed; the child is desperately trying to prove himself to his father, only to be causally rejected again and again. Throughout the course of the film Cryil comes under the care of a warm, lonely hairdresser (played by the beautiful Cecile de France) before becoming the protege of a local hoodlum. The remits of a suburban life and the capriciousness of crime each hold their attractions, but all he really wants – the only motivation – is to hold the gaze of his carefree father.
The Dardenne brothers aren’t exactly interested in ratcheting this up through the gears. Intimate yet rigidly observational, whole scenes are dedicated to Cyril’s fierce face, rushed in air as he pounds down the road with only the whir of wheels for company. It’s in these quiet, sedate scenes that the film assumes meaning; that Cyril must learn to accept another’s love, even if she, in so many ways, remains a stranger. It’s the study of an unspooling obsession, the waning death of a childhood dream and the sobering dawn of what lies in the road ahead. It’s easy to think of this as a slow freewheel. In fact, it is unrelenting.
Kid With a Bike is in cinemas today.
Text: Tom Seymour