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 Dardennes’ longtime cinematographer Alain Marcoen likes to hold the camera over someone’s shoulder or train it on the back of the actor’s head, or flush in front of his face, taking an almost dermatological interest in the skin, which is usually pimply. A living body is present in every frame.
The Dardennes’ documentaries—which have not been released in the US and are screened extremely rarely—use cinematic techniques like montage and voice-over in dealing with such subjects as factory life and protests by workers, but their fictional films have a naturalistic style often described as documentary-like. Unlike the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, who glowers down like a distant god on the pain of his created worlds, or the Danish director Lars von Trier, whose work is often close-up and sadistic, the Dardennes strive for visual and emotional intimacy. Marcoen shoots only in available light, with a wandering eye and a loose hand, so that the frame has a way of gently rocking from side to side. That looseness has been in vogue in French cinema for decades, for example, in the work of Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas as well as Laurent Cantet and Bruno Dumont; the Dardennes excel at making it a direct experience and not an aimless one. With the exception of The Kid with a Bike, they employ, with powerful effect, only sound heard by the characters.
Abandoned by the government and by their families, the films’ characters inhabit in-between zones like the riverbanks below the highway, the small forests around housing projects, service roads, administrative offices. The Dardennes are curious about things in-between. They love, for example, to photograph the in-between bodies of boys—long-limbed, intense, serious, focused, violent, spookily mature, physically dextrous boys.
There is one such boy at the heart of The Kid with a Bike. He is Cyril, a wiry preadolescent unable to face the fact that his father Guy doesn’t want him at home and has given him up to the state. Early on, in a mad dash from his school counselors through Guy’s old apartment building, the kid hurls himself at a childless forty-something hairdresser named Samantha (stoic Cécile de France). This chance meeting, and the unthinking assertion of his will—“Can I stay with you on weekends?” he asks—determine both of their fates.
Children are uncommonly adept at articulating their needs in Dardenne movies, and are apt to ask grown-ups to act as their legal guardians. (The foster system seems to function as a state-sanctioned form of human trafficking: you must know how to work it.) Still, Cyril has troubles. He claws at his own face, plays with running faucets, fidgets with the refrigerator door, and refuses to sit still. He climbs trees, walls, sheds, and jumps down from them. He hates Samantha’s boyfriend and idolizes his deadbeat father. He is always running away, his red T-shirt a flag in the distance; he rides around on his beloved black-and-chrome bike, his red jacket billowing behind like a cape.
Cyril’s weekend life with Samantha is relatively innocent until he is approached by Wes, the drug dealer who hangs out in the woods near the projects. It is half a step from passing up a soccer game with boys his own age to playing the video game Assassin’s Creed with Wes, and only a few steps from there to agreeing to commit an assault and robbery. Frantic with rage that Samantha might not let him out on the night of the hold-up, the otherwise sweet and gentle Cyril stabs her with scissors. It’s not that a good kid has gone bad. It’s that a kid, neither good nor bad, is trying to put something lost back together, using whatever means at his disposal—kind, violent, or otherwise. He acts on instinct.
The combination of urgent immediacy with a larger impulse turns The Kid with a Bike, like the best of the Dardennes’ work, into a fable—a fable in a state of emergency. The work is psychological insofar as it presents individuals facing moral choices—to take a child in, to give your own up—but we are not introduced to “characters” and then permitted to witness the choices they make as the full range of their personalities is revealed to us. We know them only as people in the present, doing things now.
For the Dardennes, choices have a distinctly haphazard quality—they are usually much closer to chance. You could interpret this as a kind of faith in some people’s inexplicable strength and sense of self, or disgust at other people’s inexplicable selfishness and immaturity. But I think something more complicated is at stake, about when and how people recognize each other as trustworthy. In this world, morality is a kind of improvisation. There are no codes or rationales; Cyril and Samantha follow their affinity for each other, like a compass.
The acting style, too, is a kind of assertion of presence: people simply, immediately, insist on being themselves. This is a moral and aesthetic position, one that favors action and composition over dialogue or explanation. It holds that, in some way, the very fact of existence, in all its color and movement and overwhelming presentness, eradicates discourse about it. At the end of The Son, for example, after Olivier and his son’s killer brawl in the bushes, they wordlessly, warily pack lumber onto a truck together. Why Olivier is drawn to the boy is not a meaningful question for the Dardennes; the way that they work together is what’s interesting. Places, chance encounters, passersby are as decisive as any set of values or psychological backstory.
No Dardenne film has ever included a two-parent home of responsible adults, but in The Child the lack of a mature presence is taken even further. The film opens with Sonia (Déborah François) returning from the hospital with her nine-day-old baby Jimmy, swimming in a sky-blue snowsuit a full size too big. She wants Jimmy’s father Bruno (Jérémie Renier) to take pleasure in the child, but he is only interested in petty thieving and cavorting. The two are happiest when wrestling, passionately, in the bright light of day on a patch of grass. Bruno touches Sonia easily and constantly, though the first time he holds his son is when he lays him tenderly down in a grimy hallway, under a fluttering orange curtain, to sell him.
The Dardennes work repeatedly with the same male actors, including Renier, Olivier Gourmet, and Fabrizio Rongione, and consistently evoke masterful performances. They are fascinated by masculinity, by fathers and sons. There are baby sons, missing sons, substitute sons, abandoned sons, fathers who are, of course, sons themselves. It is interesting, then, that Rosetta, the story of a fierce young woman (Émilie Dequenne) living with her alcoholic mother in a trailer park, is their best and emotionally crudest work.
After being let go from a factory, Rosetta tries to find a job. She gets hired mixing waffle dough, but loses that when the boss wants to give his kid a job. Raging, she betrays the waffle seller Riquet (Rongione), who has been making his own waffles at night and skimming off the profits. She takes his job. Riquet, who has been tender and halting with her, shows up in grim fury at the trailer camp. They fight. He nearly drowns, but Rosetta reluctantly saves him. It’s a terrifying film, because when it ends, one has the sense that if she had to do everything over again, she would do it all exactly the same way. Rosetta doesn’t have the luxury of learning from mistakes.
The subject of The Son is mercy, but a heavy mercy, hard won. The Child is more desolate. The last shot, of Sonia visiting Bruno in jail, the two sobbing as they clutch each other’s faces with their hands, is breathtakingly brutal. Whatever future they may have, it has come at the cost of everything else. The Kid with a Bike, on the other hand, is not about crimes—it’s about mistakes. “I’m sorry I hurt your arm,” Cyril says to Samantha when he comes back from having committed the robbery. “All right,” she says. He is forgiven. Kid trades in apologies. Maybe a child, like an insane person, is easy to forgive; maybe something less than forgiveness is required. It’s worth noting that when Cyril tries to make reparations for the robbery committed under Wes’s direction, the boy he injured refuses his contrition. Adults may have more practice at accepting apologies. They tend to have more things to be sorry for.
This isn’t to say that Cyril and his father patch things up. The Dardennes never offer “resolution”; the movie ends as abruptly as it began. But the film is explicitly about second chances, and these second chances are more readily available than they were in The Son or The Promise. It’s a new world for these directors, and it comes with new possibilities. It’s also a more visually conventional world than The Son or The Child or Rosetta, and certainly more than The Promise, in which some shots were so shaky that the colors seemed to bleed together. The camera stands farther back from the action in Kid; it gives Cyril space to run and fall and get up again. There are few panicked close-ups; the emphasis is on who is sharing the frame at any given time, on bodies together.
I will be disappointed if the Dardennes do not again make a film that matches the emotional savagery of Rosetta, which had no use for apologies. But the grace of The Kid with a Bike’s story is far too fragile to stand up to the intensity and rawness of their earlier style—it could never survive an aesthetic of confrontation. As the Dardennes’ art evolves, they are able to explore a fuller range of experience, and to find softer landings. Their desperate, local tales, suggesting our largest failures, contain in their very visual sensibility immense wisdom about the smallest daily choices—how to keep going, when to let go.