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Has there been a more misleading movie poster in recent years? After the movie was over I assumed the U.S. distributor pulled a Weinstein to draw in American crowds but the poster is the same abroad. We all want that happy, breezy, leggy image. We all want to see that kind of movie.
Which isn’t this movie.
It begins with Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret), 10 or 11 or 12, on the phone, listening with a worried brow, and being told by an unseen adult to hang up. He doesn’t. He clings to the phone like it’s a lifeline, which it is, and accuses the adult of misdialing. The world is not right, he knows that much, and assumes it’s this adult’s fault. So the adult lets Cyril dial the number himself, and they put it on speaker phone, and we hear those three annoying tones—which apparently are international—before the equally annoying message, which doesn’t sound any better for being in French: “The number you have dialed is no longer in service...” But Cyril continues to hang by the phone as if to will a different response. When the adult, an educator at an orphanage or “youth farm,” tries to guide him away, Cyril attacks, runs away, is chased, caught, brought back.
This scene is repeated throughout the movie in different ways. Cyril is a boy in perpetual motion. He’s a kid who’s running away from the truth. He’s also running toward the truth.
A month earlier, his father, Guy (Dardenne brothers’ staple Jérémie Renier), placed Cyril in the orphanage, telling him he’d be back for him within 30 days. Those 30 days are now up but he hasn’t returned, hasn’t called, and his home phone is no longer in service. When Cyril bolts the youth farm and makes his way back to their old apartment building, he’s told, through the intercom, that his father doesn’t live there anymore. He sneaks inside the building anyway, is chased, grabs onto the nearest adult, a local hairdresser named Samantha (Cecile de France—smart kid), and refuses to let go until he’s allowed inside the apartment. But it’s like with the phone all over again. The apartment is empty. He inspects each room carefully, looking for evidence but really looking for a different reality. At this point he refuses to believe any adult, any evidence, because the truth is too painful. It means his father abandoned him. It means he’s alone.
Back at the youth farm, Samantha shows up with his bike. Cyril had accused another kid of stealing it, but the father of the kid claims he bought the bike off Cyril’s dad, so Samantha simply buys it back. Cyril refuses to believe this story but he does show Samantha some stunts: how long he can stay still and upright; how long he can pop a wheelie. He flits around her car, almost dangerously, but even when showing off he never loses his dour, pinched expression. The movie will be half over before we see him smile.
His father had his own bike, a motorcycle, and Cyril, widening his search with the bike, keeps asking for a man with “a golden helmet.” It’s great image. It brings to mind Greek gods.
In a sense, that’s what Cyril is searching for but he finds the fallen kind. His father now works prepping food in a restaurant in a small town, and, when Cyril shows up, Dad acts distracted and claustrophobic around him. I was going to write he’s uncaring, but that’s not quite it, even though he obviously doesn’t care. Put it this way: there’s no guilt over what he’s done. On Cyril’s part, there’s no anger, either. Around his father he affects the nonchalance of boys. “C’est pas grave,” he keeps saying, even though it’s all grave. He clings to his belief in the man with the golden helmet. Eventually Samantha steps in and demands that Guy tell Cyril the truth to his face.
Three times during the movie we get a noticeable, almost distracting blast of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, and each blast seems to follow a moment of realization for Cyril. The first blast comes shortly after Cyril learns about his father.
So what happens to a fatherless boy? He looks for substitutes. In this case, substitutes come looking for him. Another boy, a different boy, steals his bike, and Cyril chases him into the woods, where he meets Wes (Egon di Mateo), a local tough who admires Cyril’s tenacity, calls him “pitbull,” and takes him under his wing. Do we trust this guy? He gives off a bad vibe. In his room, he gives Cyril a sodapop and lets him play his PS3, and Cyril, unsmiling, feigning his usual nonchalance, is nonetheless captivated by this new father figure. It never shows in his face—the way it would in a Hollywood film—just in his actions. It’s heartbreaking the lengths he’ll go for Wes’ approval. He winds up fighting Samantha, with whom he’s staying weekends, and who’s the only good thing in his life, in order to commit crimes for Wes. When things go awry, Wes refuses his money, which Cyril then takes to his father, who also refuses it. Neither is particularly magnanimous in their refusal. They just don’t want to get caught. They leave Cyril holding the bag. Cue second blast of Beethoven’s piano concerto.
Thomas Doret, I should add, is heartbreaking and annoying and completely believable in the title role. After the father revelation, Samantha tries to comfort him and he jerks his shoulder violently away from her. When he first enters Wes’ cramped room, with the bed the only sitting option, he seems awkward and confused, out of either etiquette or fear. For much of the movie, he keeps pursuing the wrong path even though the right path is right there. In this, he’s like most of us.
Most people will have two questions after watching “The Kid with a Bike”:
- Why does Samantha care so much about him?
- What’s with the end?
Cyril raises the first question within the movie but the movie smartly doesn’t answer. Most movies would give us a facile rationale for her actions: oh, she can’t have kids, or she was an orphan, too, or she lost her brother when he was 10. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian writer-director brother team (“La Promesse,” “L’enfant”), are smarter than that. They leave it unknowable to us, and to Cyril, and maybe even to Samantha. Much of life is like this. We don’t know why we do what we do.
It’s the third act that’s weak. Cyril, with Samantha’s help, finds the right path, and he’s riding on it, when stuff from the wrong path—in the form of the father and son he attacked for Wes—appears before him. The boy attacks him, chases him into the woods and up a tree, and throws rocks at him. One rock finds its mark and Cyril falls. Motionless. Dead? After the son retrieves the father, Cyril recovers. He wakes up groggily, makes his way back to his bike, gets on, rides off. We get our third blast of Beethoven. The end. It’s a very European ending but I didn’t find it meaningful or resonant. The past always catches up? The right path doesn’t mean a clean path? What?
“The Kid with a Bike” is an honest movie with a dishonest poster and a weak ending. I wanted to like it more.
April 7, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard