Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are master storytellers who make gripping films dramatizing personal crises faced by poor and marginal characters (particularly adolescents) in their postindustrial hometown, Seraing. Their films feel spontaneous and immediate but are, in fact, highly scripted and rehearsed.
Their latest, the Cannes-winning, Golden Globe–nominated The Kid With a Bike, presents a feisty 11-year-old boy, Cyril (Thomas Doret), who waits impatiently at an orphanage for his absent father (Jérémie Renier) to return. Attempting to escape, he literally runs into Samantha (Cécile de France), a local hairdresser, whom he asks to stay with on the weekends. She agrees. Clinging to his sole possession, a bicycle, Cyril and Samantha navigate challenging new social and emotional terrains.
Though the Dardennes focus on vigorous characters in harsh situations, their themes — which often involve taking responsibility, recognizing the other or forgiveness — hint at their underlying warmth. Both cinephiles, when asked about any filmic influences on The Kid With a Bike, they pause to consider. “Not Bicycle Thieves!” quips Jean-Pierre, and the two burst into laughter.
While revisiting key elements of the Dardennes' previous work (unmoored youth, absent parents, complex relationships), Bike is sunnier in tone; filmed in the summertime, the city seems greener and more inviting than usual. Samantha is a successful small business–woman, not the kind of hardscrabble, life-on-the-fringes character typically of interest to the filmmakers.
“We always saw Samantha as a hairdresser who had a little salon in town, and her economics had no impact on the construction of the story,” Luc says. “The story we wanted to tell asks the question of whether or not this boy who was abandoned by his father could or could not be saved by the love of this woman. We never believed that her economics would prevent her from taking an interest in the boy.”
The Dardennes hark back to an older cinema (Bresson and Rossellini are major inspirations for them) that attempted to rethink the tools of film, stripping them to their bare essentials to formulate an experience that could prompt a dialogue in the viewer. Their plots pivot on moral decisions and their consequences, but their dramas never feel didactic or preachy, partly because the films avoid psychological explanations and aren't designed for the purpose of illustration.
“The problem with psychological explanations,” Luc says, “is that the viewer often has the impression that they've understood the whole thing. When you give a psychological explanation, the viewer looks at the 'case,' sees it as a 'case,' and he's not involved with the question anymore of why the character is doing what he or she is doing.”
The Dardennes prefer to emphasize the ambiguities of faces and bodies, and the movement of people in daily tasks. “For Samantha, we didn't explain why she helps Cyril,” Luc says. “We might have suggested she lost a child, or that she couldn't have a child. Of course, the spectator asks why she's doing this and tries to figure it out as the film goes along.”
Rather than rely on extended dialogue in their scripts, the filmmakers employ lengthy on-location rehearsals to develop the physical relationships, and they block the interactive choreography of their handheld camera. “In a way, one is always looking for an explanation that isn't there,” says Luc, “but it is there right in front of the viewer. The boy takes Samantha, grabs her in his arms, and she feels something. She takes him.”
Jean-Pierre provides an analogy: “You're driving your car, someone's lying beside the road. You have a choice — you can either stop and see what's going on, or you keep driving. There are two possibilities, two ways of behaving.”
Early in the film, Samantha purchases Cyril's bike back from a boy who Cyril is convinced stole it. Cyril asks Samantha to take him to meet the boy. “Why?” she responds. “To tell him he's a thief?”
In the Dardenne universe, actions speak louder than words.
“Action resonates in the viewer's mind when he or she sees the film,” Luc notes. “It doesn't need an explanation.”
The approach contributes to the immediacy of a Dardenne film. “We're not spending energy on developing some kind of explanation, detailing cause and effect. Things are born out of movement.”
The filmmakers place equal emphasis on objects and material goods exchanged from person to person. Repetition and variation over the course of a film can suggest their own line of meaning. Cyril's father initially tries to placate his son with an assortment of snack foods; later, a drug dealer hoping to enlist Cyril offers him a soda and video games. When Cyril packs a picnic for Samantha and the two share sandwiches in a sun-dappled park, it's a significant moment of communion. “During that picnic,” Luc says, “Cyril takes on the role of decision maker, he's a little man there.”
Resembling a thematic cycle, the four films the Dardennes made from 1996 to 2005 (La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son, The Child) follow a similar structure, in which two characters overcome interpersonal barriers to achieve a face-to-face moment of mutual recognition. Their last two films (including 2008's Lorna's Silence) move beyond such confrontations to explore what happens next. “We go a little further,” Luc says. “We tell the rest of the story.”