Have the Dardennes fallen off their bike?

The remarkable Belgian filmmaking duo have produced a string of gritty modern classics - this fluffier fairytale is their first flop.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Belgian directing duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have built their formidable reputation on stark depictions of modern life and the muddy morals of those living on the fringes of society. The brothers’ body of work has an unmatched consistency, both in the quality of their output and in the thematic and geographic areas they dwell upon.

Invariably set in their hometown Seraing, their films are post-industrial dramas about the outside forces which mould us, and the choices we make in spite of them, which combine to forge our destiny. Or at least, that’s about as much as one can summate from the frayed and fiercely naturalistic work they produce.

Their career-long commitment to social realism would seem to sit somewhat uneasily with their latest offering, The Kid with a Bike, winner of the 2011 Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, which the Dardennes have described as their attempt at a fairytale. Cyril (Thomas Doret) takes the role of the lowly, wronged protagonist, trapped in a situation not of his choosing. Left to rot in a children’s home by his self-interested father (Jérémie Renier), Cyril is restless, energetic and prone to violent outbursts borne of an unrequited desire for acceptance and belonging. Unable to accept his father’s rejection, he constantly ditches school in search of him, but along the way comes across his fairy godmother, Samantha (Cécile de France), who takes an inexplicable shine to the stern-faced 11-year-old.

He begins to stay with Samantha on the weekends, but all is still not well for Cyril. His yearning need to belong leads him to fall in with local gang leader Wes (Egon Di Mateo), who fills the father-shaped hole in his life. Torn between Samantha, Wes and his own father, who he still longs to please, Cyril has to decide who really has his best interests at heart.

This fairytale’s ‘happy ending’ is somewhat bittersweet, but The Kid with a Bike still takes the Dardennes into far more fluffy territory. While it may have the pared down aesthetics that are characteristic of their work, this film is discernibly less grey, both aesthetically and narratively. For one thing, it is shot entirely in the summer, with a wash of bright, breezy colours replacing the gravelly hues of The Son or Rosetta, and the inclusion of music, albeit a repeated few measures from Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, give proceedings a soft, pleasing flow that is particularly alien to their austere oeuvre.

The compulsion to lighten things up and tell a story in which everything more-or-less works out in the end is certainly an admirable change of tack for the Belgian filmmakers, but there is an unavoidable lack of depth here. The plot trudges along rather predictably and the characters are surprisingly one-dimensional. As ever the Dardennes eschew needless back-story to maintain the illusion of naturalism, but in this case it has the effect of making their actions rather inexplicable. They each seem to be merely going through the motions which the fairytale form requires of them: the callous father dispels the boy, the swaggering street-kid leads him astray and the angelic fairy godmother arrives just in time to deliver him from evil. After a while, the fairytale form begins to feel like little more than a justification for the formulaic and uninspiring way in which the narrative unfolds.

Doret’s performance of Cyril strikes the perfect balance between diffidence and angst, and de France is warm and convincing. But each character nevertheless feels superficial. The Dardennian prolonged, silent takes, which usually draw us to ponder the hidden thoughts of those on screen, is only tedious and annoying here. If anything, these moments tend to confront us with the sorrowful absence of the sort of subtle dynamism and intensity that the Dardennes are so adept at weaving into their scenes.

In its attempt to reconcile naturalist portraiture and fairytale storytelling, The Kid with a Bike ends up cleansing either form of its usual pleasures. The result is a predictable and shallow affair, that leaves one longing for the Dardennes’ former magic.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

Watch the trailer for Kid With A Bike:

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