The Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, wrote and directed The Kid with a Bike in their usual naturalistic style. The film was released in 2011 and, like La promesse (1996) and Rosetta (1999), is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. Unlike those two earlier films, which are both excellent but remarkably downbeat, Bike is decidedly lighter and more optimistic in tone. What it shares with the earlier two is an exploration of how poor parenting impacts psyches of young people.
The title “kid” is 12-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret), a foster child whose world is turned topsy-turvy when his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier) sells his prized bike and moves to an undisclosed location with nary a word. No matter how many times he’s told that his father sold the bike, Cyril simply will not accept it. It must have been stolen, he insists. The idea that his father vacated his apartment without notifying him is also difficult for him to accept. This is a story of the effects of abandonment and rejection at a young age.
Cyril’s world changes for the better after a chance encounter with a woman named Samantha (Cécile de France). In a random act of kindness, she manages to track down the boy’s bike, buying it back from the new owner and returning it to Cyril. The single Samantha begins hosting Cyril at her home on weekends. But the only thing on his mind is reuniting with his father. When he finally does, it turns out Guy is predictably less interested in embarking on a new father-son beginning. Emotionally lost, Cyril falls under the influence of an older boy (Egon Di Mateo) with disastrous results.
The plot unfolds with unforced simplicity. The Dardenne’s mine the emotion present in the very smallest of details. Note the way Guy, who works as a cook at his girlfriend’s restaurant, doesn’t care one iota as his son attempts to demonstrate his sauce-stirring skills. Or the way Cyril tries to impress Samantha with bicycle tricks as a way of expressing gratitude for her having returned his prized possession. The 87-minute film is laced with such seemingly ordinary and superficial moments that actually speak volumes about the characters.
In Thomas Doret the brothers found a natural screen presence to portray Cyril. Doret hadn’t acted before but he manages to avoid striking a single false note. And Cécile de France turns the reserved Samantha into kind of a guardian angel for Cyril. While always underplaying, she uncovers Samantha’s maternal instincts without ever descending into cliché. Samantha has no backstory, but somehow we accept and believe in her devotion to this boy she hardly knows but is willing to sacrifice so much for.
Criterion’s high definition transfer was supervised by the Dardenne’s regular cinematographer, Alain Marcoen. The result is a generally bright, colorful image that is consistently sharp. Though shot on 35mm film, grain is very light. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 offers a clean, simple presentation of the film’s French dialogue. In keeping with the natural atmosphere crafted by the Dardennes, the sound design is intended to resemble reality, not heighten it. Ambient effects, such as distant dogs barking or traffic sounds, carry over to the rear channels without drawing attention. It seems Criterion has effectively conformed to the desired technical vision originally conceived for the film.
Practically everything you could possibly want to know about the creation of The Kid with a Bike is contained in a new 73-minute interview conducted by film critic Kent Jones with the Dardenne brothers. While that extensive supplement is the main attraction, there are also shorter interviews with cast members Doret and de France. “Return to Seraing” is a half-hour piece in which the Dardennes return to key locations used for Bike, further discussing the making of the film.
The Kid with a Bike is another vital entry in The Criterion Collection’s expanding catalog of the works of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The film offers a simple but deeply emotional story about the importance of strong parental guidance during a child’s formative years.