In Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thieves, a desperately impoverished, salt-of-the-earth Roman worker has his bicycle (and thus livelihood) stolen, shortly after securing a long sought-after gig pasting up posters during the post-war depression. The film follows his quest to recover his cherished mode of conveyance, accompanied by his cherubic son. Along the way they encounter various examples of the dog-eat-dog pragmatism of poverty, illuminated by the odd flash of human warmth, not least that which emerges from their own relationship. Dominated by hardship and misery, the film nonetheless offers a glimmer of redemption in the form of human compassion and forgiveness, a contrast to the alienating indifference of a capitalist system that reduces people to units of currency.
It is tempting to view the Dardenne Brothers’ latest film as a remake or homage, though as tends to be the case in their particularly stark brand of unadorned realism, any of the consolations of humanism are considerably harder won. Whereas De Sica’s social realism depicts the material circumstances of urban poverty but is seduced by the twin temptations of sentimentality and dramatic performance, in the Dardennes the human subject is shown to us at a far more advanced stage of late-capitalist alienation. De Sica’s implied faith in the redemptive transcendence of the human soul is replaced by unknowable, conflicted individuals whose acquisitiveness and occasional flashes of affection are never straightforwardly separable. If the Dardenne Brothers are not always as engrossing or aesthetically memorable as De Sica, at their best they are a good deal more unsettling.
Whereas The Bicycle Thieves is glued together by the fundamental bond between father and son, The Kid with a Bike focuses on Cyril, a 12 or 13 year-old boy who has been casually rejected by his father. Initially the plot concerns Cyril’s attempts to recover his bike, yet it morphs into something more akin to a bildungsroman, a character portrait of a vulnerable yet resilient child adrift in a world in which acquisitiveness and indifference are the norm. An abandoned orphan, Cyril is offered an unexpected lifeline in the form of a hairdresser who encounters him during one of his frequent dramatic flights of rage, and subsequently agrees to foster him. As in De Sica, a bond emerges between the two that offers the film’s promise of redemption. However the sentimentality and idealised character traits (the stoical simplicity of the father, the crowd-pleasing cuteness of the son) that mark that film are absent, or at least presented far more problematically.
Just as their hero Robert Bresson remade Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc in a way that stripped it of what he regarded as its grotesque thespianism, the Dardennes slam shut the door that De Sica offers us to his characters’ interior lives, rejecting any unnatural expressiveness and obviously scripted dialogue. As in Bresson, the Dardennes’ mode of characterisation is all flatness and surface; physical movement and cinematic syntax take over the work more conventionally assigned to dialogue and performance. We are denied the background information or intimate access that would allow us to readily categorise the characters, or credit them with the clearly differentiated motives, desires and stable traits of traditional humanist subjects.
This alienation ties in with the films’ more fundamental concerns. Though the Dardennes deal with the wrong side of the tracks, they seem to be primarily interested in a form of spiritual rather than material poverty. True, their characters are generally frenetically rushing around struggling to make ends meet, and a lack of material opportunity and hope is a continual backdrop. However, they are not primarily out to shock us with representations of extreme poverty or domestic abuse, or to promote a clear-cut social or political message. Existential themes of meaninglessness and indeterminacy are instead pushed to the foreground, and this makes their films far more unsettling. Whereas a film such as The Bicycle Thieves encourages the utopian interpretation that if it were merely unburdened of an unfair social system mankind might flourish, the Dardennes are as interested in emotional and spiritual forms of alienation as they are in social disenfranchisement. Though they may in some ways be by-products of a dehumanising capitalist system, there is no obvious political solution to the problems they confront.
If this groups the Dardennes films together into one, that is because they are in a sense stages of the same project, corners of a cumulative picture of the world as viewed through the microcosm of the unremarkable industrial city in Belgium in which all their films are set. Through adapting Bressonian techniques they have developed a method by which to translate their worldview into a cinematic form that is at times almost perfectly at the service of content, utilizing and making a virtue of the tendency of film to aestheticize and keep us at arms’ length, rather than attempting to overcome it through artificial means. The immediacy of the medium gives them a mimetic advantage over the Zola-esque novels their films recall, presenting the world to us in its natural state of flux and indecipherability, free of the necessarily reflective dimension of language.
Despite being of the same bloodline, and though it shares many of the broader virtues that make them so unsettling and indispensible, The Kid with a Bike in my view ultimately falls slightly short of the devastating cogency of films such as L’Enfant and Rosetta. Though the first half of the film is flawlessly crafted, in the second there is a tailing off that I would suggest can be traced to both structural and thematic problems that are absent from their best work. The ending of the film is in a sense a reprise of that of The Bicycle Thieves. In that film the father, driven to desperation, steals a bike from a crowded square only to be chased down by an irate mob. Though initially out for revenge, the owner of the bike relents upon seeing the man’s defenceless child, and opts for forgiveness. The son too forgives the father and, as the film ends with a shot of them walking away hand in hand, materially destitute but somehow spiritually enriched, we are left with an image of humanity that transcends the dehumanization of material want.
Similarly, The Kid with a Bike ends on a note of hope and redemption. Cyril has briefly become caught up with a local small-time dealer, and in return for a bit of mild buttering up commits a robbery that involves him – somewhat implausibly in an otherwise rigorously realistic film – knocking out a father and son with a baseball bat. He is saved from the path of juvenile detention and seemingly inevitable ruin by the man he has assaulted, who agrees to forgive him and drop charges. Cyril is ultimately able to return the compliment when the man’s son attempts to exact revenge and briefly fears he has killed him. In an apparent nod to its own artificial symmetry, Cyril is also knocked out only to come around minutes later having suffered no serious ill effect.
Part of the deflation that takes place with this late storyline comes from the fact that not all of its details are particularly believable; but this would not be a primary concern if it served a more compelling essayistic function. The problem for me is that the ending feels rather too determinate, dissipating some of the energy generated through the powerful portraiture of the opening half of the film. In the Dardennes’ best work the final scene arrives as a crescendo that is also a paradox, an inevitability that somehow also manages to question and redefine all that has gone before – like the emotional outpouring at the end of L’Enfant that is rendered all the more shattering for its stubborn indeterminacy, or the sheer relentlessness that marks the final crescendo of Rosetta. Both scenes confer on us an urgent interpretative choice, as in the devastating final shot of Trouffaut’s The 400 Blows when the young Antoine is frozen in an unexpected close-up, looking almost pleadingly into the camera as if to ask ‘what now?’
In the more optimistic closing note of The Kid with a Bike, we can still hear some characteristic undertones: the conflict between that which is shown and presumed, and the probability that the symmetry of the plotline is coincidental and ultimately meaningless. As Cyril cycles off into the sunshine we have no idea what he is thinking, whether he will manage to choose a better life than that which seemed his fate, whether he will collapse from a brain haemorrhage following his concussion, or indeed whether he will make it home at all without being hit by a lorry. Yet it failed for me to gather these conflicting possibilities into the sort of compelling paradox that makes films like L’Enfant and Rosetta so piercing and resonant. As an addition to the Dardennes’ body of work it sits somewhere short of the apex, but it still does enough to demonstrate why they are of a completely different order of significance to 99% of the films that will be showing in a cinema near you this year – and for that reason it demands to be seen.