The Kid with a Bike
The Kid with a Bike, the 2011 film by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, won the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and opened in the US in March. Since turning their attention to original movie dramas in the late 1980s, the Dardennes, Belgian brothers who spent the 1970s and 1980s making documentaries, have received international acclaim. They have written, directed, and produced some of the most impressive films to come out of Western Europe in the past fifteen years: The Promise (1996); Rosetta (1999), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; The Son (2002); The Child, which also won the Palme d’Or (2005); and Lorna’s Silence (2008). Unlike many French-language filmmakers, whose characters talk about their quandaries or argue the existence of God or other philosophical dilemmas, the Dardennes do not consider conversation a principal mode of ethical inquiry; nor do they seem much interested in sex. Their passion is for the spontaneous or cowardly or unexamined deed, and its consequences.
They set and shoot their films in Seraing, a former manufacturing center in the east of Belgium. This city, though, is not given any special Belgian identity. It seems similar to many other small postindustrial cities of the West. In this anyplace, the Dardennes act as keen observers of work and of sloth, refusal, neglect, opting out. Their characters struggle to stay afloat in low-paid jobs—hairdresser, waffle stand salesperson, carpentry teacher, ex–juvenile offender—or they are small-time swindlers or outright criminals. They live like the survivors of a war, the last people scuttling about after the death of manufacturing industries. The so-called economic “system” is inescapable, but more important, it restricts what happens; the Dardennes are interested in the everyday moral dramas of average people suffering and colliding and surviving within it.
The result is neither dull nor dutiful, nor conventionally guilt-inducing for a comfortable art house audience—it is quite the opposite. These films are tense high-wire acts of dramatic irony. In The Son, for example, we spend much of the movie waiting for pudgy, brooding Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) to tell tense, knife-sharp Francis (Morgan Marinne), his newest student at the woodshop where he works with juvenile offenders, that the boy Francis murdered was Olivier’s son.
The Dardennes’ method stresses immediacy. Their films open with someone standing on a staircase, or being fired from a factory assembly line, or dialing a phone. Revelations and critical confessions erupt as unexpected blurts. The final scenes break off ambiguously. By withholding information, the Dardennes replace judgment with implication. This technique has evolved—while their early films were almost all shot in close-ups, their later films also have scenes in medium range—but they still feature many more close-ups than typical Hollywood films. These are very rarely Terrence Malick-esque examinations of objects or natural wonders. The…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.