Please Note: The images used here are taken from promotional materials, not the Blu-ray disc under review.
It almost makes you nervous, the consistent heights that Belgium's Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, The Son, L'Enfant) -- easily among the very greatest filmmakers working today -- reach in their work; it seems too good to be true that any director could turn out one masterpiece after another for what now stands at six features (the ones they've made since 1996; any fiction films they made before then, they've more or less disowned) in a row without the other shoe dropping or the law of diminishing returns kicking in. I'm happy and enthusiastic to report, however, that nothing of the sort has happened with their latest contribution, The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin au vélo). Yet again, the Dardennes spin a tale as thematically and narratively humanistic and deeply moral as it is formally rigorous, pared down to the essentials of action, interaction, and emotional consequence in the context of its characters' particular journeys as they struggle to find and maintain connection, safety, and love in an indifferent world that seems bound and determined to harden them, too, by stranding them without the nurturance and protection essential to fully embracing their own lives and responding humanely to the existence and importance of others.
The latest in the Dardennes' gallery of always conscientiously conceived and written "at risk" people (a through-line in their films stretching from the African immigrant/widow in La Promesse to the juvenile delinquent in The Son and beyond, with those teetering on society's plentiful cracks always their principal concern) is preteen Cyril (Thomas Doret), who lives in a home/institution for budding juvenile delinquents because his down-and-out father (Dardenne mainstay Jérémie Renier) has his own messy life to deal with and can't be bothered. Cyril cling's with a child's tenacity to his optimistic, rose-colored vision of his father (the only thing in his life, at this point, he thinks he can afford to see that way), for example insisting, until the blunt facts make it impossible, that his father never meant to move out of the flat they shared without leaving the slightest indication as to where he's gone, and that he certainly never would would've sold off Cyril's beloved bicycle for much-needed cash. It's on a hectic, unapproved visit to that same abandoned flat, to search for his bike and clues to his father's whereabouts, with the nice but fed-up counselor from the disadvantaged boys' home in hot pursuit, that Cyril literally bumps into his guardian angel and salvation, Samantha (Cécile de France, Mesrine, Hereafter), a just-middle-aged woman in a doctor's waiting room whose arms he crashes into as he seeks shelter from his well-intentioned would-be captors, and whose person he instinctively clings to in his flight and hopeless searching. As a resident of Cyril's and his father's old neighborhood, Samantha is in a position to buy back his bike and bring it to him, and, apparently impressed with his sudden appearance in her life and his desperation, she does, with the rest of the film becoming the platonic love story between the child whom treacherous experience has hardened (and rendered vulnerable to negative replacement father figures, a weakness rendered here as his falling in with an appealingly tough/tender older boy (Egon di Mateo) who mainly wants to use him for a robbery, leading to the film's severest test of Cyril's and Samantha's bond) and the selfless woman who un-self-consciously harbors the rarest of treasures, unconditional generosity and love, and who will gradually become what she finds she deeply and genuinely wants to be: the de facto parent that Cyril needs.
There may be nothing more difficult than convincingly creating and portraying a truly and profoundly good character like Samantha, but if anyone can do it, it's the Dardennes. There's always at least one major miracle (and most often many, all of which the filmmakers bring off with a preternatural instinct for what rings emotionally and logistically true) in a Dardenne film, a secular salvation that comes in the form of an unlikely realization or moral awakening, the right road taken at last, whether it's a barely-pubescent son's defiance of his unethical father in La Promesse, a bereaved father's quietly shattering, momentous act of forgiveness in The Son, or the resurrection of the protagonists' atrophied abilities to feel or express emotion at all in Rosetta and L'Enfant. It's always about the re-opening of hearts that harsh experience have closed, or the keeping open of hearts in jeopardy, becoming and staying a thinking, feeling being in a world that habitually violates or dulls the finer moral and affective senses. To that end, Cyril's fate as an untrusting, betrayed child falling in with nihilistic and destructive influences is thwarted by the miraculous intervention of someone whose care, unlike that of his biological father, he can count on no matter what. And then, breathtakingly, in the film's final third, the scenario spryly and supply expands out even further, offering up a concluding reversal that, in addition to granting another, more tangible miracle (this one ever so subtly reminiscent of the one that concludes Dreyer's Ordet), enfolds into Cyril's story the eternal moral question, posed here in clear narrative terms, of holding a wrongdoer accountable and helping them do better vs. the grim, vengeful pleasure of eye-for-an-eye punishment.
How do the Dardennes convey such miraculous stories on terms so directly and plainly naturalistic, quotidian, and hyper-aware of the details, rhythms, and behaviors of everyday, ordinary life? Simply put, their instinct for casting, for performance, and for painstakingly honing a plot's succession of events for maximum logistical and emotional plausibility is unimpeachable, truly incomparable. They never even come close to sentimentalizing Samantha by making her a saint or martyr, contriving or overemphasizing her goodness by bathing her in a halo glow (they let it shine steadily out, through Samantha's kind but no-nonsense exterior, from within) or explaining her exceptional, selfless love for Cyril through some psychological rationalization for her extraordinary living out of moral tenets and imperatives to which most of us mainly pay lip service. Working with the stellar de France, they create a remarkably calm and restrained performance that makes Samantha solidly believable through actions we can see (and, in the Dardennes' eminently sensitive hands, practically feel as they play out in brilliantly, quietly observed detail before our eyes), not exposition or explanations. (An equal degree of conscientiousness has also, of course, gone into the character of Cyril, and into Doret's performance -- an awe-inspiring balancing act between how misguided, how "unlikable" are many of this disappointed, half-embittered child's traits and actions, and how undemonstratively but absolutely vulnerable and sympathetic we can see he is.)
The Dardennes here, as throughout their incredible body of work, thus exemplify the show-don't-tell adage to a T; it's a shame that the term "action movie" has come to mean something aggressively straining, amped-up, and loud, since it applies just as well to the way we tend to enter in medias res (in this case, we cut from the Dardennes' standard, plain white-on-black credits to young Cyril hanging insistently on the phone, redialing again and again in disbelief as he rings his father's disconnected line) into a Dardenne Bros. film, which always goes on to become a tableau of minutely attentive observations of the characters in action, defined as much by what we see them do, alone or in each other's company, as by anything they say. To achieve this observant, kinetic-quotidian quality in The Kid with a Bike, the brothers' scenario and the excellent performances they elicit from their cast are aided once again by the beautifully naturalistic, intimate camerawork (deceptively casual-seeming, often unobtrusively hand-held) of their longtime DP, Alain Marcoen, who gets the light, color, and texture of life in semi-troubled, unglamorous urban places (usually inhabited by working-class, poor, or "marginal" characters) just exactly right, without ever exaggerating or underplaying either the darkness or the light that coexist in the struggling, vulnerable neighborhoods and lives to which they bear empathetically clear-eyed witness. They've also added a new element, taking a risk that succeeds with tremendous power: non-diegetic music (until now, none of their films have ever had any kind of score) in the form of an occasionally heard snatch -- just a few of the most soaring bars -- of a gorgeous, sacred melody from Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5. It doesn't feel external or superimposed in the slightest, though; it comes in and rises up unexpectedly and abruptly at moments when the characters are wordlessly experiencing, alone or together, some silent moment of epiphany or intense emotion, and disappears just as quickly. It's as though it's not playing over the proceedings, but emanating outward from inside the film to express something in the lived/felt experience of this lost boy and the woman who found him to which words could never do justice. It's a heretofore foreign but very carefully considered device that integrates beautifully into the Dardennes' aesthetic ethos, which is something like the location-shot/working-people-centered Italian Neorealism of the immediate postwar period (even this film's title can't help bringing de Sica's Bicycle Thieves to mind) filtered through the minutely sensitive, careful, layer-by-layer image- and sound-building that gives Bresson's films (a frequently remarked-upon influence on the Dardennes) their special physicality, lucidity, and grace.
Call it neo-neorealism: In The Kid with a Bike no less than in their other films, these great cineastes continue to fulfill and expand upon some of the highest, noblest promises the cinema ever made, with the sort of precision, concentration, focus, and perfectly developed sense of dramatic and structural rhythm that lead to the kind of seemingly effortless, extremely powerful simplicity that's one of the most difficult qualities to bring out through any medium, let alone with such sure-footed consistency. Again and again, they attain a seemingly self-generating and fully self-contained and organic directness, purity, and transcendence of narrative, performance, image, and sound that leaves you feeling emotionally raw and much more aware, gratified, and cleansed, with a renewed faith in the deep, unique power of the medium to let us see -- truly and directly see, to the point of almost being able to touch it -- the fragile dignity and unique preciousness of human life and experience.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
This AVC/MPEG-4 1080/24p transfer, preserving the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, displays all the benefits of being a film current enough to have had the transfer supervised by the film's director of photography (in this case, the Dardenne's always-and-only cinematographer, Alain Marcoen): The integrity of the film's neo-neorealist aesthetic-- all that naturalistic lighting and color, with Marcoen's camera seeming to gently coax the beauty out of the most mundane settings ' unvarnished reality -- is excellently retained, with all skin tones looking natural, all the colors vibrant, all blacks/nighttime scenes solid, no compression artifacts (not a trace of aliasing or edge enhancement/haloing) discernible at any point, and a wonderful celluloid-texture not compromised at any point by digital noise reduction. It's a wonderful transfer.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track (in French with optional English subtitles) is a thing of beauty. The Dardennes use sound in much the same way Robert Bresson or Michael Haneke do, as a vitally significant, extremely carefully constructed, almost discrete element of a film, and every nuance of dialogue, action sound like footsteps in stairwells, ambient sounds of traffic, rustling leaves, children at play, or cicadas, diegetic music, and those rare, glorious snatches of Beethoven "score," all come through with all their original sparkling clarity and subtlety here, without a single flaw (distortion, imbalance, etc.) to disrupt the experience.
--An interview with Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne conducted by critic/curator/author Kent Jones (one hour and 15 minutes), in which Jones continues his winning streak, after his superb visual essay for Godard's Weekend, as the Criterion Collection's go-to guy on their francophone film releases. He discusses with the brothers -- with great perceptiveness, warmth, humor, and respect (he even speaks poses his questions and speaks with them in their native French wherever he can, charmingly using it all up à la Roberto Benigni on occasion and reverting to English) -- all the ins and outs of their creation of this film, digging deep into the mechanics of the narrative, their inspirations, casting, shooting, etc., etc., the filmmakers' responses revealing much articulate insight and confirming, of course, that their process of paring their work down to the pure and essential is one packed with trial, error, and extremely careful and conscientious decision-making at every turn.
--Interviews with stars Cécile de France (18 min.) and Thomas Doret (6 min.), candid and revelatory for what they discuss (the casting process; de France, an established professional, saying she had to learn to be "more like Thomas," a guileless nonprofessional, for her role here), while their very different appearances and manners from their characters (Doret, an early adolescent, already has a much deeper voice in the interview; de France looks 10 years younger and much more chic than her working-class hairdresser character) is a testament to the inside-out transformation they underwent to embody Cyril and Samantha.
--Return to Seraing, a half-hour documentary (evidently shot, on video, by the Dardennes's cameraman Alain Marcoen, since they address him and speak of "your camera") in which Jean-Luc and Pierre revisit several locations from the film and discuss the ways in which they constructed and altered physical details (sometimes extensively) as necessary, integrating the spaces into their overall story and vision. It's an excellent, fascinating and enlightening look at how these two master filmmakers are constantly thinking, vetting, and honing as they work to make what finally appears onscreen so immediate, real, and finely observed -- and a tribute to how very difficult, detailed, and painstaking it is to keep things real in this way on film.
--The film's U.S. theatrical trailer.
--A booklet packed with stills from the film and featuring an essay by critic/programmer Geoff Andrews (in which he provocatively but convincingly compares The Kid With a Bike to Night of the Hunter).
Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne have done it again: The Kid with a Bike is yet another masterpiece in the unbroken streak of vital, naturalistic, emotionally intelligent and exquisite work they've given us with unimaginable consistency from 1996's La Promesse on; it's a film so finely honed at every emotional, stylistic, dramatic, and performance level from moment to moment that it's like watching the cinematically distilled essence of life itself. Their troubled, at-risk soul this time around is a by turns disappointed and angry boy called Cyril (Thomas Doret), who's rejected by his own father, tempted by false but compelling substitute father figures to go down the wrong path, and rescued by the unconditional love of an angel, Samantha (Cécile de France), upon whom the Dardennes steadfastly refuse to cast a contrived, saintly light and whose ordinariness they insist upon, keeping her as workaday and normal as possible (and thereby implying, by shining, naturalistic, utterly believable example, and in a way that never gets remotely heavy-handed or preachy, that her goodness, despite her working-class need to keep herself, and now Cyril, afloat as a neighborhood hairdresser, is within the reach of any of us). Like all of their beautiful, deeply felt, stringently created, genuinely and profoundly inspirational work, The Kid with a Bike is a simple moral tale whose sensibility has arrived at its purity through a kind of deep-searching, aesthetically moral process -- a painstaking, thoroughgoing sifting out of absolutely everything, in every image and every performative/dramatic moment and every sound, but what's real, true, and important, so that the film adheres unfailingly to, and immerses us in, the fragility of a character's humanity, the all-importance of preserving it in the face of the callousness and indifference it's always so easy to slip into. It's a vital, exhilarating, actually uplifting (as opposed to the falsely reassuring, cheating, shallow, and simpleminded movies that tend to get branded as such) picture, and from anyone else, it would be a DVD Talk Collector Series title; in the brilliant constellation of the Dardennes' work, however, with the bar set so singularly, impossibly high, the highest high-water marks, the most must-see-for-your-life-to-be-complete works remain Rosetta and The Son, with The Kid with a Bike highly, Highly Recommended as another urgently compelling movie cut beautifully, flawlessly from very much the same cloth.