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Jean-Pierre (left) and Luc Dardenne, directors of The Kid With a Bike.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

A Fairy Tale for Our Times

Mar 30, 2012 Web Exclusive
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In The Kid With a Bike, the latest film from Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, an 11-year-old boy, Cyril (Thomas Doret), doggedly refuses to believe, after a month living in a state-run youth home, that his father has abandoned him permanently. He phones his father obsessively even though a message says that the number has been disconnected. A chase ensues after Cyril bites his educator on the arm and flees. He runs through the streets to his old home, only to find it empty and his bicycle missing. While dodging the educator, he collides with and clings to a stranger, Samantha (Cécile de France), a local hairdresser. They are separated, and Cyril is taken back to the youth home. But, in that clench, a bond is formed. Samantha, who lives alone, finds the bike that Cyril's father sold and offers to take in the boy on weekends, initiating a tumultuous relationship.

Dardenne characters typically exist on the margins of society. Whether they're immigrants, unemployed, or adolescents with deadbeat parents, they're vulnerable to the lure of illicit activities.

"We were not abandoned," Jean-Pierre says, referring to his and his brother's upbringing. "But I think being abandoned is a nightmare that belongs to everybody. I think what was important is that the town, the city where we shoot our movies, Seraing, we saw it when it was alive, when there was a lot of intergenerational communication, where it was a living city. And when we came back 20 years later, it had been abandoned. There was no longer a train station. All the stores were closed. And that's when we saw young people starting to appear that were very alone. A lot of unemployed. A lot of parents that were unemployed and no work for the kids. It's like in our first film, The Promise, where you had a character that told the kid, 'You need to tell the truth, not do as your father does.' We needed a moral compass for the film and for the character."

Released in the States in 1997, The Promise is, in fact, the Dardennes' third feature film, but it was the first to earn them international attention. The brothers, who co-write and co-direct, made documentaries in the early 1980s before transitioning to fiction with Falsch in 1987 and Je pense à vous in 1992. Rosetta, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999, starred first-time actress Émilie Dequenne as an impoverished teen living in a trailer park and in search of a job. Rosetta went on to win the festival's Palme d'Or while Dequenne received the Best Actress honor for her portrayal of the title character. By this time, the Dardennes had established an unflinching style that fused the handheld vérité techniques of their documentary background with the naturalistic approach of postwar neorealism.

Each of their subsequent films has won a major award at Cannes, including their second Palme d'Or for L'Enfant in 2005 and a Grand Jury Prize last year for The Kid With a Bike, which also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The Kid With a Bike, shot on the streets of Seraing, at times recalls the themes and aesthetics of European classics such as The Bicycle Thief and The 400 Blows. And though Belgian actress Cécile de France is renowned in French cinema, Doret, who portrays both the vulnerability and untamed rage of the young Cyril to remarkable effect, had never acted before.

"We thought there was so much intensity in that boy that we felt we were going to be able to work with him," Jean-Pierre says.  "He was the fifth boy we saw on the first day of casting. For all of them, what we had them do as an audition was the first scene where he's on the phone and we just said, 'OK, you're calling and you want your father to answer the phone. He's not going to answer.'"

Luc continues: "One of us would play the role of the educator who would say, 'OK, c'mon, he's not going to answer. Hang up.' So he had to be acting two things: one, that he was waiting for somebody to pick up on the other end of the phone, and two, that he was bucking authority or he was struggling with an adult on the other end."

"I don't remember whether it was Luc or me who was doing the part of the educator at that point," Jean-Pierre says, "but when we said 'OK, now hang up,' and we wanted to take the phone back, he really fought to keep that phone. But he didn't do it with a lot. It was more like the way he looked at us."

With their previous films, the Dardennes had rehearsed the actors prior to shooting, but not to the extent of the preparations for The Kid With the Bike, which lasted for more than a month. During this period, they tried different methods for various scenes, but nothing was improvised.

"The rehearsals are really where the film is born because we work with a very little camera, but that's also where we're working within the sets, and we know where there are certain adjustments that are going to be made," Jean-Pierre explains. "And that's where the actors start to live, where we start to feel that we find things, discover things in terms of movements and attitudes."

"When a rehearsal day is over, it's wonderful," Luc says. "Those are the best moments. Everything is still possible. But, when you've started to shoot, after the first day, it's not quite the same thing anymore."

Thomas Doret and Cécile de France star in The Kid With the Bike.

As Cyril attempts to reconnect with his father (Dardenne mainstay Jérémie Renier) throughout the film, he vacillates between accepting Samantha's care and rejecting it. His juvenile tantrums test the patience of Samantha's boyfriend and jeopardize her romance with the man. Cyril lies to Samantha and sneaks away from time to time, into the company of a neighborhood drug dealer. Still, Samantha remains committed to Cyril, and the Dardennes had little interest in conveying a backstory that would explain her resolve in the face of the aggravation he brings her.

"We didn't want the viewer to look at it as a psychological case," Luc says. "The child grabs Samantha and she falls on the ground, but something very powerful happens between them which propels her toward the relationship, which propels the relationship, and one understands it through that."

"We wanted it to be a question mark throughout the whole movie where the viewer didn't really receive an answer to it, but where there was some sort of answer through the behavior and through what happened in the film," Jean-Pierre adds.  "And so, in the final analysis, we wanted for the spectator to say, 'Well, I don't know why she did it, but she did it.'"

The Dardennes have likened The Kid With a Bike to a fairy tale, the film germinating from their initial premise of a boy who is abandoned by his father and is saved by a woman. But it wouldn't be a Dardenne film if it weren't grounded in socio-economic realities of today.

"Right now, it's a passage that we're going through socially," Luc says. "There are a lot of women that are alone with kids."

"It's a film in honor of women," Jean-Pierre says.



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