Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Vlad Dima - Perpetual Motion: The Dardenne Brothers' The Kid with a Bike

Perpetual Motion: The Dardenne Brothers' The Kid with a Bike
by Vlad Dima
Bright Lights Film Journal

The latest film by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is oddly both fast and slow. Cyril, the main character (played wonderfully by Thomas Douret), looks for his father who had abandoned him, but connects with a benevolent hairdresser, Samantha, who eventually becomes his legal guardian. The kid is moving constantly, mostly on his bicycle the English translation of the original title, "Le Gamin au vélo," misses out on a nuance, that of possession, which is under question at the beginning of the film; but it is his bike — "au vélo" — not "avec"/with a random bicycle). As Cyril's frenetic movement appears to up the tempo of the film, the directors drastically slow down the pace by using long takes, and as little cutting as possible. It is amid the two contrasting tendencies that Cyril's story finds the perfect narrative balance.

Naturally, even the mention of the word "bike" in a film makes us recall Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thief (1948): a kid, a bike, a father. De Sica's film indeed hovers over the narrative of The Kid with a Bike, but the latter goes in new directions. The stolen Italian bicycle is connected to the destinies of an entire family, while Cyril's bike evolves from signifying his lost connection to a father who does not want him to the object that offers him freedom. The theme of independence appears from the beginning when we witness Cyril attempting to escape the children's home in which he had been placed. In fact, in this instance we are reminded more of Antoine Doinel from Truffaut's 400 Blows (1959) than Antonio or Bruno from Bicycle Thief. The emblematic final run at the end of 400 Blows is essentially an interminable, uninterrupted travelling shot of Antoine running toward the sea. Cyril's story almost picks up where Truffaut had decided to open end Antoine's odyssey. The direction of Cyril's movement is rather significant, too. Antoine runs left to right, a direction associated with Western movement; he is headed toward a conclusion. Cyril's movement, conversely, is chaotic and goes both directions. Interestingly, when he is about to get into trouble (riding toward the gas station, running away etc.), he goes in the opposite direction, right to left. When the film reaches some sense of normality, and we see both Samantha and Cyril ride together, they go in the "correct" direction, left to right.

There are many other connections to Truffaut's film, and even to Godard's Breathless (1960). Cyril, like Antoine, lies about obvious truths; there are several references to a psychologist Cyril presumably talks with at the children's home, although we never see him or her. Truffaut's film famously chooses to show only Antoine during the conversation with the psychologist, completely ignoring the counter shot. When Samantha and Cyril are in a car, we often only see Cyril and hear Samantha's voice (the opposite happens in Godard's Breathless in which we see Patricia talk to Michel in the car, but we do not see the latter). Even though there are a few people influencing him, Cyril comes off as independent for the most part. Initially, though, he cannot think of anything but being reunited with his father (in another departure from Bicycle Thief, the father had sold his son's bicycle when he found himself financially strapped). At the crucial moment of acceptance that his father is no longer interested in taking care of him, Cyril finds himself on the other side of a metaphorical wall. However, this happens to be also an actual wall that he had to climb in order to get to his dad. When the father pushes him back to the other side, for a brief moment they are literally separated by a wall. For a moment, we fear for Cyril, for his fate, until we realize that he is on the open side of the wall, the side from which he can escape.

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