just released to DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion, a young boy name Cyril (Thomas Doret) lives in a foster home, and he spends most of his waking hours trying to set up some kind of contact with his deadbeat dad (Jeremie Renier). But the manager of the apartment building where his dad used to live -- and, it's assumed, Cyril used to live with him -- insists that the man has moved away, and left no forwarding address. Some investigation also turns up the fact that his father sold his son's bike. None of this slows Cyril down, whose whole life really has been given over to finding his dad and being his son again, so that much of the early sections of the film are comprised of Cyril literally fighting to get loose of the foster home (which is staffed with professional, caring, but frustrated workers) so that he can alternately pepper anyone who might reasonably know anything about his father's whereabouts with the same questions he's clearly asked them many times over, and with staring through windows, craning his head around corners, knocking on doors, waiting. He's angry and confused, but when he's not scratching his way free from somebody or other, his patience is jaw-dropping.
The fact that the appearance of Cyril's father in the film is entirely unceremonious should not surprise anyone familiar with the work of the Dardenne brothers. The Dardennes' films are both among the most heart-breaking being made today, and the, well...the least ceremonious. When, with Samantha (Cecile de France), a kind woman who, after being caught up in one of Cyril's scuffles with foster home personnel, takes a caring interest in the boy and not only gets his bike back but also agrees to foster him in her home on weekends, Cyril appears at the door of the restaurant where his father is working, we're shown Samantha and Cyril waiting outside until the door opens, and we only see Guy, the father, in part, as the camera is angled in such a way that the view of the doorway has been cut to a sliver. When Cyril goes inside, the camera is as disinterested in what's going on as Guy is in his son. Hence, unceremonious, and hence, heart-breaking. The Dardenne brothers have seen a lot of the kind of everyday human villainy -- not the word they'd use, I'm sure, but I'm going to go ahead and use it -- that typically gets blown up to fit movie screens by most filmmakers, and they know how to depict the Guys of the world with almost unbearable precision, nor, usually, do they offer any kind of satisfaction by way of comeuppance. In The Kid With a Bike, Samantha's demand that Guy tell Cyril, to his face, that Guy wants nothing more to do with him, a task Guy had previously attempted to pass on to Samantha, must count as the barest kind of triumph. Of course, this is followed up by a scene in which Cyril almost completely comes apart, and the beginning of the sad young boy's near devastation.
This is the fourth Dardenne brothers film I've seen, after La Promess, Rosetta, and The Child, and I've found that, overhwelming emotional component aside, there is something strikingly compelling about their work that I have a difficult time pinpointing -- that they are so unceremonious, or overtly stylish, both leads to this realization and provides some of the confusion. But thinking about The Kid With a Bike over the last day or so led me to also think about, curiously, Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows. One very specific scene in that film, to be clear, the one where Lino Ventura is in a transport plane, heading out on some French Resistance-type mission (please excuse me, the particulars are no longer clear, evidence only that I need to watch Army of Shadows again). In this scene, he's shown waiting. He also eats a sandwich. I don't claim this is a particularly long sequence, but I remember thinking as I watched it that this quiet bit of nothing, in terms of action, or even style, or even acting, really, was somehow no less compelling to me than anything else in that terrific film. The answer to this puzzle doesn't lay in context, because any goofball can put his hero on a plane and say "He's going to fight Godzilla!" and the stuff on the plane would still be barely sustainable as drama, or even filmmaking. I'm tempted to blame, or credit, alchemy.
Whatever it is, the Dardennes have it, too. There are sections of the film where, in order to get Cyril's story from one point to another, from, say, point A to point F, (G through Z to follow), the Dardennes refuse to cut out points B, C, D, or E, so that we see Cyril park his bike, go into Samantha's hair salon, above which they both live, talk to her about the errand he's just run, get quizzed a little on math, go upstairs, get a snack, and so on, or later ride his bike to the store, runs his errand, etc. Rides the bus to find his dad. Sits around. Does nothing. The Dardennes show it all, is the point (while still keeping the film to a lean 87 minutes, mind you), and yet I never felt the urge to quietly wish they'd simply get on with it. I think because, probably, that stuff is it, and so what you're watching them do is their version of getting on with it. It's the life the characters live in between the big moments that fascinate them, or trouble them -- anyway, they're equally interested in that stuff. There are long stretches of people just riding the bus in Rosetta, as I remember, and the viewer is left to wonder, when these people have a down moment for once in their goddamn lives, what they might be thinking about.
In Rosetta, there was some mystery to that question, but in The Kid With a Bike, I'm not sure there is much. Cyril is younger and more baffled than Rosetta, even if she was more lost, and so Cyril has locked onto one thing -- his dad. Failing that, any dad. And so yes, on a technical level I find the Dardenne brothers to be remarkably interesting filmmakers, but of course it's what this is all in aid of that finally kicks you in the stomach. The Kid With a Bike is the only one of their films that I've seen that almost made me quite angry. I won't say why, exactly, but it's a mix of things that are all compacted into the film's last couple of minutes. A thing happens, and that thing can branch off one of two ways. Two minor character (though at this particular moment they seemed pretty goddamn important) have a conversation that is entirely maddening -- not unbelievable, not maddening in that way, it didn't "take me out of the movie" or any such nonsense. But maddening. Then the thing that happened branches off in the way I hoped it would, and the ending of The Kid With a Bike became, I think, perfect. My TV screen was saved from having a brick heaved through it. Then I was left thinking about the ending that didn't happen, the one that would have destroyed my TV. I had to wonder, even in my relief, if that would have been a "bad" ending. It's occurring to me now that no, it wouldn't have been, but what it would have been was "an ending." In other posts, I've quoted the great short story writer Tobias Wolff to the effect that a good short story has to begin after the beginning and end before the ending. This is what the Dardennes excel at, and this what that other, nonexistent ending would have refuted. If the Dardennes are committed to filming what happens in the lives of people between the big moments, then The Kid With a Bike could only end the way it did, which is, it didn't end. It is perfect.