Saturday, October 8, 2011

"The Kid with a Bike" (2011)

I've read a reviewer's somewhat glib comment that the Dardennes brothers have not strayed from the form/formula which has made their distinctive brand of filmmaking internationally renowned -- The Kid with a Bike is to be considered, in this respect, a continuation of this formula, and one in which the Dardennes "milk...the imperiled child premise and tough-love salvation trope for all the ruthlessly effective drama it can deliver." One cannot dispute this claim, but I am willing to deride this view as unintentionally dismissive (as if the failure, rather than the success, of the Dardennes' "tough-love salvation trope" sufficed to pigeonhole the efforts of the brother directors as aesthetically redundant and unadventurous). Watching The Kid with a Bike, I am compelled to believe that filmmaking must always be executed this way, generously, yet in punctuation; passionate, yet controlled and refined; emotionally raw, yet life-affirming and graceful. The Dardennes are at this moment peerless in their medium; The Kid with a Bike, yet another heartfelt and humane masterpiece by the Belgian masters, finds them at their most pitch-perfect, indeed as good and as great as they have always been. One cannot leave the theater without taking away the impression that life at its most miniature and severe bears up the contours of a Dardennes film -- life, that is, as one lives it now, without the blemishes of exaggeration, yet always imagining the worst of worst events at every occurrence, only to learn that what life offers is only the continuation of an arrested, flawed, yet ultimately inescapable ideal. The ideal of true suffering, and the ideal of true redemption. Forgiveness is all (a message which seems to be the note on which the Dardennes wish to exit each of their glimpses into the lives of the unfortunate, the abandoned, the unloved and the desperately loving alike).

Storywise, plotwise, mise-en-scene-wise, The Kid with a Bike joins the ranks of the cinema of troubled childhood (a cinema which the francophone world has particularly excelled at). One catches references to Pialat's L'enfance nue; but also, most importantly, to Truffaut's 400 Blows, specifically in an engrossing, lengthy tracking shot of the titular boy riding at hellspeed through a feverish night on his beloved black-and-chrome bicycle. The film's structural resonance brings to mind the neorealism of Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine; here, no longer neo- as such, but explicitly common; a realism which achieves its effects sans realisme. There are also touches of the Bressonian (the Dardennes have reached a level of editing which, I am willing to argue, finds near equivalency with the work of that immortal pastmaster) -- most notably in the elegant swells of  the beginning phrase of the adagio in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, a phrase always tastefully inserted at moments of pristine clarity, in the form of elegant punctuation. Yet for all this mastery and elegance I speak of, the film is rightfully and painfully brutal, and the lead actor, Thomas Doret, undergoes a grueling apprenticeship in the cinema of physical turmoil. The film begins with the boy, named Cyril, in frightful motion and anxiety; he is always, in the picture, moving, sometimes against his own volition, as it were, in search of an anchor that can stop or wreck him -- to him it is all the same, he hazards his life in every situation, because he cannot be stopped, he cannot stop himself, from accelerating forward, endlessly forward. And the film ends, indeed, with an image of young Cyril speeding onward, yet again, though in this case, reborn, or perhaps, unshaken by his karma, rebooted into a life filled with unseemly interruptions. Cyril's redemption comes, as is spiritually useful, through a silence, through a firm and solid "No" -- yet without the least complaint at having been stopped so violently in his progress into (and out of) childhood. He endures these manifestations of violence (themselves embedded in a lower-class social sphere that typifies the real Belgium in the eyes of the Dardennes, a sphere in which characters are forcefully brought into communion with other desperate souls, and often, with the better angels of their nature) -- because there is something in Cyril's acceleration that declares itself aware of the mental fact that only he can stop himself, choose where to stay, choose where to run. His is an apprenticeship of accelerated manhood.