Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne make a certain kind of movie, but it's the kind of movie you don't often see in American multiplexes and the Belgian brothers do it well enough that it's worth seeing what they'll do next. After catching up with some of their work on DVD, I decided to see their newest effort on the big screen even though the Dardennes are arguably the opposite of spectacle makers. They're lean naturalists concerned with low life at or near the fringes of society. Their interest is sympathetic rather than exploitative and the results look and feel authentic. I get a better sense of being in another world from their pictures than from many CGI fantasies, and even their small-scale studies are meant to breathe on as large a screen as possible. You can appreciate the way they choreograph action within long-take space better on a big screen. There's a scene in this movie where the kid, Cyril (Thomas Doret), is reunited with his bike and rides it in dangerous proximity to his benefactress's car, after impressing her with some wheelies, as she backs up and pulls out of the courtyard of Cyril's youth home, all in one take. It all looks authentically risky for the boy and the woman driving the car, yet it must have been staged to seem characteristically impulsive for Cyril. While some directors specialize in beautiful framing and the stuff of screen captures, the Dardennes excel in staging action within the frame and focusing our attention on the key details. That's naturalism, I guess -- or neorealism -- and done right it's as much of a feast for the eye as any kind of filmmaking.
This time around the Dardennes have come up with a story that feels especially archetypal; it's likely to evoke many an earlier film depending on who's watching. Cyril's in the youth home because his father was temporarily unable to take care of him. Dad promised to come back for him soon, but Cyril has grown impatient and obsessed. He wants his Dad and he wants his bike. He escapes from the youth home and sneaks into Dad's old apartment building, despite being told that Dad had moved out. Chased by his caretakers, he seeks shelter in a clinic waiting room in the same building, clinging to the legs of a patient, Samantha (Cecile De France), from the same neighborhood. She's surprisingly compassionate. You can hold on, she says, only not so hard. After he's pried off, she takes an interest in the boy and the bike. She's the one who presents it to him, explaining that she bought it from someone to whom Dad had sold it. Cyril won't believe that story; the bike had to have been stolen -- Dad wouldn't sell his boy's bike like that. But he ultimately finds proof that Dad had done just that, and sold off his own motorcycle, too. Suddenly, Cyril latches on to Samantha again, asking if he can stay with her on weekends. She agrees, and helps him track down his Dad, who now has a kitchen-prep job in a restaurant. Keeping the focus on Cyril, the Dardennes don't show us Samantha's first meeting with Dad, saving for Cyril and us together the big, yet inevitable reveal that Dad is some Guy played by Jeremie Renier -- the actor who more nearly embodies the brothers' work than anyone else and serves for them as an icon of feckless, pathetic masculinity. Father and son have an uncomfortable reunion in the restaurant kitchen; Dad seems in a hurry to be rid of the boy. Breaking focus on Cyril, we now see a private chat between Guy and Samantha, in which the father explains that looking after the boy is too stressful for him and asks Samantha to make sure the kid never visits him again. After learning from Cyril that Guy had promised to at least call him next weekend, she takes the boy back to the restaurant and compels Dad to tell him what he told her.
The paternal rejection is temporarily shattering but Cyril seems to recover quickly. He shows interest in playing with other kids for the first time in the picture, but his yearning for a father figure soon reasserts itself as he falls under the influence of the neighborhood drug dealer. Professing to admire Cyril's courage after one of his stoogest tried to steal the bike, the dealer dubs the boy "Pitbull" and invites him to his home (his grandma's, actually) to play Assassin's Creed. He's really looking for a fresh face to do a mugging for him, but Cyril's almost pathological urge to bond with an older man puts him at violent odds with Samantha and in danger of jail or worse when the mugging by baseball bat of a news dealer and his son doesn't go exactly as planned....
Some reviewers have compared Le Gamin with Vittorio De Sica's neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, but the similarities between those films seem superficial to me. The film reminded me more of one French movie and one American film. The French film is Robert Bresson's Mouchette, the story of a sullen girl with an unloving father that addresses the possibility of grace for the unwanted and put upon. Cyril strikes me as a sort of male Mouchette, and the ending of Le Gamin strikes me as a counterpoint to the close of the Bresson film, down to the closing burst of classical music. Unexpectedly, the film Le Gamin most reminded me of was Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker. Cyril's world so entirely revolved around his dad that Dad's absence plunged him into a sort of autistic void from which Samantha attempts to rescue him. Cyril's frantic flailing about, climaxing in a salon scuffle during which he stabs Samantha, reminded me of Helen Keller's violent tantrums in Miracle Worker. To be honest, an earlier scene in Samantha's salon in which Cyril compulsively scrubbed his hands in her faucet despite her insistence that he not waste water triggered the comparison for me. The way the film developed, I thought it would be a Miracle Worker without a miracle, but ... to say more would spoil things but see my comparison to Mouchette for those in the know. Compared to Annie Sullivan, Samantha's motives are kept deliberately obscure here, but Cyril clearly fills a profound void in her life. Forced to choose between the boy and a boyfriend after an argument, Samantha chooses Cyril. Even after Cyril stabs her -- it's little more than a nick, really -- she breaks down in tears at the thought of reporting him to the authorities. If she seems saintly, the impression is probably deliberate. The Kid With a Bike is essentially a sentimental story about the potential of persistent goodness, but it's no tearjerker. It seems almost Spielbergian in its vindication of matriarchy and goes beyond Spielberg in suggesting that Cyril is better off without a father figure, given the options in his milieu, but the Dardennes pull this off while appearing to remain clear-eyed and unsentimental. They don't manipulate the emotions in blatant Hollywood ways but theirs is the sort of story an older Hollywood would recognize. That's not a criticism, but it is a warning that the story might seem to belie the brothers' naturalist pretensions. But if you take Le Gamin as a kind of modern fairy tale or parable, albeit redeemed by its relevance, you should be able to appreciate it on its own terms as an outstanding film.