Home Video Hovel- The Kid With a Bike, by Josh Long
One of the things that we all love about the Criterion Collection so much is their commitment to a film’s look and feel. It’s in the transfer, represented in the DVD menus, the music chosen, and most obviously in fantastic cover art. The cover of their new release of Le gamin au vélo (The Kid with a Bike) doesn’t immediately blow you away. But when you take a look at the promotional poster (the one that doubles as the cover for an earlier DVD/Bluray release of the film, you can see it on IMDB), you see the difference. The old poster is designed to entice unsuspecting casual film watchers into thinking they’ll see a nice movie about a day at the park. Whereas Criterion’s cover suggests more of the truth – a taught, often dark drama, whose camera never leaves the titular gamin.
The film, written and directed by the Dardenne brothers, tells the story of young Cyril, a boy whose father has left him in an orphanage, never intending to retrieve him. In desperate efforts to find his father, Cyril encounters the local hair-dresser Samantha. In an act of sheer altruism, she finds his bike and returns it to him. Latching on to her as a kind soul, but also as a possible connection to his father, he asks Samantha to foster him on weekends. She agrees. But Cyril still has demons to deal with – he’s unable to accept his father’s abandonment, he is unwilling to accept love from other parental figures, and he falls in with a bad crowd. The story is about the difficulties he faces, the dark future that could be in store for him, and how Samantha’s intervention might draw him to a different path.
Anyone familiar with the Dardennes will find it unsurprising that this film was awarded Cannes’ Gran Prix in 2011. They are elegant, able filmmakers, with a distinctive mise en scéne. The Kid with a Bike is a strong addition to their body of work. There are several astounding aspects about the craft in this film. One is the length of their takes. Long takes are not inherently good, but the key is the way the Dardennes shoot entire scenes in one shot, and still fill them with energy and vibrancy. There is so much movement in these shots that one never feels outside the action, watching theatrically. Instead we are invited in close to these characters, sharing their world and experiences.
Another triumph of the film is the balance between truth and fable. The story has fable elements to it – a boy “rescued” from the orphanage, seeking his long-lost father. It even extends to the locations (the forest exists as a location where Cyril often finds himself in danger) and costumes – Cyril is always wearing red. Yet the style and dialogue has a rich realism to it. Where a lesser filmmaker might feel it necessary for his characters to explain their actions and motivations, the Dardennes present their scenes as matter-of-fact. The actions happen because they do, and that’s all we need to know to engage with the film. The camera work and lighting itself lends to the realism, never drawing attention. This is typical for filmmakers like the Dardennes, who got their start in documentary.
As usual for a Criterion release, the picture and sound quality are excellent. The supplemental features are unfortunately somewhat sparse. The highlight is a video interview with the filmmakers almost as long as the film itself. Especially for a fan of the Dardennes, this is a very interesting exploration of their methods, motivations, and philosophies of film. They discuss practical elements of the production, as well as inspiration for the plot and balancing the themes. This is particularly interesting because it reveals them as very meticulous. The film itself seems so off-the-cuff, so natural, that it’s interesting to see how there were weeks of rehearsals, how there was deliberation over all the plot details, how even a character’s movement within a given scene is carefully orchestrated. The Dardennes are aware of this, and yet speak of their desire to hide it, for the film to not read as “directed.” They invest an intense control, but use it to affect serendipity.
In addition, there are interviews with Thomas Doret (Cyril) and Cecile de France (Samantha), the theatrical trailer, and a segment where the directors return to locations used for the film, in the Belgian town of Seraing. The actor interviews are interesting, but there’s nothing much unexpected. The segment in Seraing is more of a curiosity than anything else, and might be most interesting to those interested in production design.
If you’re unfamiliar with the film, it’s a great entry point to the Dardennes’ oeuvre, and an engaging vibrant drama. If you’re already a fan of the film, you’ll find Criterion’s bluray a careful handling of the picture and sound quality, with some interesting supplements, heavy on interviews with the filmmakers. A must-see for film lovers, and a must-own for fans of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.