For other filmmakers, competing in Cannes alongside the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne must feel a bit like playing in the Super Bowl against the 1972 Miami Dolphins, or the World Series against the ‘98 Yankees. Beginning with their fourth feature, Rosetta, in 1999, the Dardennes have competed five times at Cannes, twice winning the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or (for Rosetta and 2005’s The Child), and most recently taking home the screenplay prize for Lorna’s Silence in 2008.
This year, the dynamic duo is back in Cannes with one of their best films, The Kid with a Bike, another powerfully affecting moral drama set in and around the Belgian seaport town of Seraing, where the Dardennes have spent most of their lives. It is terrain they have now mapped as extensively as Monet did his garden at Giverny, and yet, like the master painter, they keep finding new stories to tell—simple, unadorned human stories that carry a universal resonance.
In The Kid with a Bike, the title character is a restless 11-year-old moppet (played with terrific intensity by 14-year-old newcomer Thomas Doret) who has been placed in a children’s home after being abandoned by his single father. We first see the boy, named Cyril, clutching a telephone as if his life depended on it, trying in vain to reach someone who can set this all right. Unwilling to face the fact that parents can be imperfect people, Cyril then makes a break from the home and returns to his former apartment block, in search of both dad and his abandoned bicycle, neither of which are to be found. But he does quite literally run into Samantha (Cécile de France), a kind hairdresser who helps to retrieve Cyril’s bike and, later, agrees to become the boy’s weekend guardian. Eve then, we are still a long way away from happily ever after.
As usual in a Dardenne film, all of the above, and everything that follows, is conveyed in short narrative bursts that keep the story hurtling forward at a clip—the narrative, like the characters, never at rest. Moment by moment, the filmmaking is astonishing in its lucidity, its economy of means, and the performances the Dardennes draw from an untested child actor and a sprightly ingenue (de France) who has never allowed herself to seem this ordinary, this real on screen before. “It’s in 3D, it’ll be fun,” Samantha tells Cyril at one point in the film, urging him to go to the movies with a friend rather than loitering about with unsavory characters in the streets. In a year when Cannes is presenting its first 3D competition screening (Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai), the Dardennes have once again shown us life itself in more dimensions than any mere technology will ever permit.
On Wednesday afternoon, I spoke with the brothers about their new film, their career-spanning themes, and working in the shadow of Clint Eastwood.