Lost in the Traffic of Acquisition

The Kid With A Bike is Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s newest cinematic slice of realism. Known for their uncompromisingly realistic portraits of people at odds with the post-industrial economy in working-class Belgian settings, the Dardennes’ films focus on a broken down social system that is as fractured as the economy. At the heart of all their work are economic choices and the repercussions that result from them.  The choices include everything from selling one’s own baby son for money (L’Enfant) to selling one’s own body for citizenship (Lorna’s Silence) to selling your own kid’s bike (The Kid With A Bike).

The Dardennes do not beat their economic message over the audience’s head. Rather, in an understated realism, they focus on issues of broken families, unemployment, and immigration in a post-industrial global economy.  As bleak as the economic realism of these films is, at their core we can always see the fragility of human nature and the potential for redemption in the godless world of capital. While the situations in Dardenne brothers films are uncompromisingly real, the characters who must navigate often appear as fleeting angelic spirits caught in the material world of cell phones, cash exchanges, credit cards, and traffic of all variety in a world that has little use for angels.

Enter The Kid With A Bike and the life of Cyril.  Eleven year old Cyril enters the movie in the first shot and, aside from two short scenes, never leaves the screen and rarely sits still. He starts the movie desperately trying to call his father who has abandoned him in a state home for children. Cyril pushes the numbers on the phone over and over only to receive the same message that the line has been disconnected. A counselor tries to reason with Cyril and explain that his father is gone, but there is no reasoning with a boy who only wants one thing in the world – to be reunited with his dad. Cyril bolts from the home, runs through streets and takes buses through the city to the bleak public housing where he lived with his father. His father is gone. The apartment is empty. Cyril faces the empty apartment with his back to us, and in that one moment he has to swallow down reality. The rest of the film follows Cyril’s odyssey as he tries with his entire being to find his father and believe that he still loves and wants him, only to be faced with a closed door. Explaining what happens in the rest of the film, as I do in this article, may seem to spoil the plot. But a movie like The Kid With A Bike is more about giving a flash portrait of reality than providing a Hollywood-style narrative loaded with twists and turns that can be spoiled.

The Kid With A Bike is a heartbreaking tale of disenchantment, but one that eventually leads to re-enchantment as well. Playing like a fairytale for the 21st century, the movie is a quest where the imaginary world has been replaced by the world of the real, and Cyril has to come to terms with that world. Always wearing a red shirt or a red jacket, he’s like a new kind of Red Riding Hood making his way through the post-industrial forest of adults, class, heartache, and survival. He runs, fights, climbs trees, and, more than anything, rides his bike. He moves with the speed of lightning, never sitting still for a moment, as if motion itself will keep the hard truth from catching up with him. On his quest, Cyril wants nothing more than to be reunited with his father. He holds onto his belief that things will work out. But The Kid With A Bike is a coming-of-age story in an economic world where reality overrides dreams, and we watch at a heartbreaking proximity as Cyril’s dream is pulled out from under him and his father tells him he doesn’t want him anymore.

This could be a tragic tale – a child left alone in such a heartless world that he has to relinquish his innocent childhood optimism for the brutality of reality. But the Dardennes aren’t dealing with the heightened cinematic form of melodrama. They are working in emotional and economic realism. Certainly Cyril meets his share of Big Bad Wolves as he pedals and runs his way through the movie, and the movie has moments that could lead to tragedy, but in the end Cyril’s pure energy and force of will keep him going. He doesn’t have his father, but he does have his bike, and that bike is like his life’s blood. It keeps Cyril and the film hanging onto a thread of hope even while he is flying by the seat of his pants.

In his desperate state of abandonment, Cyril finds a kindred spirit in Samantha, a single working woman who owns a hair salon on the council estate where Cyril used to live with his father. When Cyril flees to the apartment building, he attempts to hide from his counselor in a clinic. In his frantic and furious flight, he bumps into a young woman and hangs onto her with all his might. He physically attaches himself to her, and from that point on, the two are united.

This is Samantha, the woman who will end up adopting Cyril. Even though Cyril grabs onto Samantha, the film quietly shows that the attachment is mutual. Samantha provides the boy an alternative family for the one who has forsaken him, but it is also clear that Cyril brings light into Samantha’s life. That they meet each other in a clinic speaks to the idea that they are both injured souls for whom finding one another serves as a kind of therapy and a chance to start a new life together.

Cyril not only runs back to the apartment looking for his father, but also because he desperately wants to find his bike. Neither are there. As in so many other Dardennes films, the bike has become a casualty of economics and bad choices; it becomes a symbol of a broken family and broken dreams. But, in this film, even more than its predecessors, the Dardennes are alert to the potential for magic in the real world and how it opportunities for redemption. The bike also becomes the vehicle for Cyril’s quest and transformation.

His bike is Cyril’s sole possession, his freedom, his connection to his father, his way of feeling like he can move in an economic world in which there aren’t a hell of a lot of places for him to go. At first the bike is the material manifestation of Cyril’s father (which Cyril desperately clings to) and the father’s abandonment of Cyril (when he dumps Cyril at the home and sells the bike). The bike then becomes a kind of vehicular force with which Cyril attempts to outrun reality, even as he continues to try to win his father back. Finally, the bike becomes a symbol of reconciliation within the terms of a reality that can’t be reconciled.

When Cyril goes to find his bike, he finds a kid on the estate riding it. Cyril runs after the boy, fights him to the ground and tries to get his bike back. The boy tells Cyril that the bike belongs to him, that Cyril’s dad sold his father the bike. Cyril refuses to believe him, and insists the boy stole the bike. Cyril walks away empty handed without the bike. But this is not a defeatist film, even in a defeating economy. The next day Samantha arrives like an angel at the state home where Cyril is living. She has Cyril’s bike. Cyril asks her where she got it, and she tells him that she bought it back for him. Cyril climbs on the bike and adamantly insists that his father didn’t sell the bike but that it was stolen. Cyril grips onto his belief that his father didn’t abandon him as tightly as he grips the handlebars on his bike. Cyril shows Samantha a few tricks and pops a wheelie. As Samantha drives off, Cyril chases her down on his bike and asks if he can stay with her weekends. A kind of fairy godmother in the landscape of the real, Samantha agrees to take him in. But Samantha isn’t a fairy or a godmother. She is just a working woman running a salon at the housing complex where Cyril lived with his dad. She is very much grounded in working reality.

With his bike back, Cyril pedals his way through his quest for his father. He goes to a gas station where he discovers a sign in the window that his father posted selling the bike. This is the moment of Cyril’s disenchantment. As the saying goes, “The writing is on the wall.” There is no denying his father’s name, phone number and description of the bike for sale. Cyril can no longer deny that his father has dumped him and his bike.

That day Cyril goes back to Samantha’s salon. He turns the faucet on in the shampoo sink and lets the water run over his hand as if he could literally wash away the reality he had to swallow when he sees that sign at the gas station. He holds his head low, his eyes glazed over, his face a study in barely contained emotion – dejection, anger, hurt, disenchantment, all pooling under the surface of his eyes as he lets the water run.

Samantha turns the sink off and says she hates wasting water. Cyril turns the water back on again in what seems like defiance but ultimately is just his way of lashing out against the hurt inside him. The sink grounds Cyril in the very real setting of Samantha’s salon, but it also represents the tears that Cyril doesn’t cry. He turns the sink faucet on because he cannot turn on his own faucet and cry tears for losing his father. In a tearless matter-of-fact voice, Cyril tells Samantha that his bike was not stolen and that his father did indeed sell the bike. His voice is dry, all his tears bottled up inside him.

Samantha joins Cyril in his quest for his father as she tracks him down and attempts to facilitate some form of reconciliation. She arranges a meeting with Cyril’s father Guy (played by Jérémie Renier from L’Enfant), but the father doesn’t show up. Not willing to concede defeat so easily, Cyril and Samantha find the restaurant where Guy works. The father plays along with Cyril, but he is clearly disengaged and bothered by the intrusion of his son. In a simple and very real scene, Cyril offers to help Guy stir sauces. Guy explains what the sauces are, and Cyril picks up a spoon in each hand stirring the sauces, his face and body a portrait of desperation – desperately trying to connect with his father and be a part of his life, desperately trying to make this a “real” father and son moment that can last. But the moment doesn’t last.

Nothing about Guy’s role in the scene is real or sincere. He is simply irritated and waiting for his son to leave. The scene is so short, so understated, and so simple, yet speaks to so much heartbreak. It represents the possibility of what could be (father and son working and doing things together) as opposed to what is (father wanting to cut all ties with son). Cyril clings to hope of reconnecting with his father as the father carelessly jots down Cyril’s mobile number on a piece of paper that we know damn well is going to end in the garbage. Guy will throw Cyril’s phone number in the trash, just like he essentially threw Cyril himself away. The scene is emotionally devastating. As we watch it unfold, we feel both sides and see what Cyril is refusing to see. We feel Cyril’s desperate hope to be with his dad, how he holds onto the possibility of hope when the situation is hopeless. We also know that Guy has no intention of giving Cyril what the kid so desperately wants. We see both through Cyril’s eyes and Guy’s eyes, but it all comes back to the effect on Cyril, and that heartbreaking effect is utterly devastating.

Guy calls Samantha aside and tells her that he doesn’t want to see his son again and that she needs to tell Cyril. Not only does Guy dump his kid and sell his bike, but he’s too spineless to tell his own son that he has no intention of calling him. When Samantha asks Cyril what Guy told him, Cyril says his dad is going to call him soon. In this moment, Samantha takes on a role that is angelic in its practical and uncompromising realism. In a strange yet productive turn, Samantha becomes Cyril’s savior by facilitating his disenchantment. She understands that as long as Cyril believes that his father is coming back, that he will be held captive by a kind of hex or evil spell – clinging to hope when there isn’t any.

Samantha forces Guy to tell Cyril that he does not want to see his son anymore. Guy does what Samantha asks, and when he shuts the door in Cyril’s face, there is no more chance for hope, no pretending that there will be reconciliation. Cyril and Samantha drive away as Cyril pounds his own head with his little fists, as if he could pound reality right out of it. The scene is absolutely heartrending, but it is also a scene that leads Cyril (and his bike) to a new place. In an ironic and complex twist that is often present in Dardennes’ films, the only way for Cyril to gain hope is to acknowledge what is hopeless and to stare hopelessness in the face. Nothing can be accomplished when one is in denial. It is only by acknowledging hopelessness that Cyril can let go of his denial and make room for the possibility of a new kind of hope.

That new kind of hope lies with Samantha and the alternative family that she provides for Cyril. Interestingly, we know very little about Samantha other than through her relationship to Cyril. The film is very much about the present, about what is happening right now in the moment. We are provided no backstory for any of the characters – Samantha, Guy, or Cyril. The only way we know about the past is through actions in the present. We know that Cyril’s father dumped him because we enter the film with the boy looking for his dad.  It is through Cyril’s hunt for his bike in the present narrative that we discover that Guy sold the bike. But it is actions and not stories that reveal details. Everyone in the movie is thrown together in the immediate present, and the emotional depth of the film comes through the characters’ expressions and immediate actions.

This is not Hollywood cinema loaded to the gills with the weight of a melodramatic backstory. Samantha has no past. She is only who she is now in the moment. This makes the film so much more effective because it makes it less easy. We are not given simple answers. Instead we are given a set of circumstances – a hairdresser who decides to adopt a troubled abandoned boy – and we are left to accept their relationship on its immediate terms but also to write our own emotions onto the narrative. Cyril asks, “Why did you let me stay with you?” Samantha replies, “Because you asked.” But we want to know as badly as Cyril does. The film’s refusal to provide that sort of explanation gives us emotional responsibility. We project our own emotion onto the story, which makes the film far more effective than a typical Hollywood narrative that provides all the answers for us. Life is not full of answers. It’s full of questions. Does Samantha adopt Cyril in a genuine act of altruism, or is she somehow caring for herself while caring for the boy?

I believe it’s a little of both. Samantha’s quiet expressions lead us to believe that underneath her calm and strong exterior (the tanned and muscular Cécile De France looking like a goddess of stability), exists an emotional vulnerability, maybe her own past injuries that have not yet healed, her own need to create new hope in her life. So Cyril can provide as much hope for Samantha as Samantha does for the boy. Perhaps, Cyril and Samantha are mirrors of each other in a quiet way. Towards the end of the movie, when Cyril comes to terms with his “new life” without his father, he and Samantha go for a bike ride in the park. When they ride bikes together, Cyril is no longer alone on his bike. In fact, they stop and switch bikes – Samantha wobbling along on Cyril’s bike which is too small for her while Cyril stretches his young legs to reach the pedals on Samantha’s “grown-up” bike. Their bikes may not perfectly fit, but Cyril and Samantha have found a fit together. The scene when they switch bikes seals that bond. Even while the world around them is full of traffic, threats, heartbreak, and social, economic and emotional pitfalls, they still have each other.

Traffic of all variety is a key element in all the Dardennes’ films. Cars are everywhere, and cash is exchanged at every turn. Mostly set in the Belgium town of Seraing, an industrial town known for its steel factories and foundries which are now shut down, the Dardenne brothers’ films are largely about the new post-industrial economy at odds with an industrial past and the everyday working and lower class people trying to survive in a world moving too fast for them to get their footing. The primary exterior soundtrack for Dardennes’ films is that of automobiles rushing from here to there. Cars are parked along streets, driving along highways, turning corners, stopped at red lights. Their engines are going, and their horns are honking. Buses and freight trains rumble by. Traffic on freeways moves at high speeds. The vehicles are not romanticized cars of a bygone era. Just like the characters within the film, the cars are of the now – the present day economy. The streets are full of newish small cars from Asia and Europe, the automobiles of a new global economy. They are not rundown beaters, nor are they fancy cars. They are everyday cars for everyday working people, and they are in motion everywhere, even in The Kid With A Bike.

Situating Cyril on his bike amongst this world of moving vehicles makes him seem both vulnerable and somehow above it all, like an angel flying through the traffic. We simultaneously worry that Cyril can be hit at any moment by the dangers around him, as he furiously pedals, yet we also get the impression that he is untouchable: an angel in a red t-shirt soaring through this fast moving economy on his bike.  Cyril’s furious will seems to allow him to transcend the traffic and all that it stands for in the economic world that surrounds him.

Cyril is solidly situated within the fast moving economy of other Dardenne’s films, but he is also very different. In a film like L’Enfant, every adult and child seems to be affected – or infected – by a hard cash economy.  The young adult lead Bruno acts with the irresponsibility of a child, selling his own son and anything else he can get his hands on for cash. For Bruno, money is both everything and nothing. He is the embodiment of the irresponsibility and disposable nature of the new economy, driven solely by the acquisition of money which he throws away on useless junk. The kids in L’Enfant are equally driven by cash. The young boy Steve conspires with Bruno to deal in stolen goods and lift bags from unsuspecting ladies. Bruno is a kid who never grows up, his relationship to money being a manifestation of his lack of personal responsibility, while the kids in L’Enfant have grown up too soon, driven to steal and stuff their pockets with cash to be part of the world of capital and acquisition which is zooming all around them.

On the other hand, Cyril is completely naïve to the world of a cash economy. Money means nothing to him. All he wants is his dad. When Cyril gets caught up in a robbery scheme with a young gang kid Wes from the housing estate, his motivation is not cash. First and foremost, he just wants to be accepted by this older boy as a kind of surrogate father. That wish fails miserably when Cyril botches the robbery, and Wes shuts the door in Cyril’s face just like Guy does. Wes is just another component of the rest of the fast-moving world trafficking in cash, petty crime, and stolen goods. He named himself after a character in a video game (Resident Evil), and he sees life as a video game (a kind of dog-eat-dog marketplace for lower working classes) where winning means stealing whatever he can get and using anyone he can to help him.  In other words, he is a character from earlier Dardennes’ films, and he would fit in perfectly with Bruno in L’Enfant – both boys who never grow up and whose drive for money overrides their drive for human compassion.

But that is not Cyril’s world. Cyril is profoundly innocent even when hard reality smacks him at every turn. After the botched robbery, Cyril has a bunch of cash, but he doesn’t run out and spend it on disposable crap like Bruno in L’Enfant. Instead, Cyril pedals his bike across town and uses the cash to try to buy the love of his father. He shoves the cash at Guy, desperately wanting his father to take the money and therefore accept and return Cyril’s love. But Guy throws the money to the ground, and Cyril leaves the cash as he pedals away defeated. Money is useless to Cyril. What he needs is the love of his father, yet his father treats him like so much disposable waste in an economy of waste.

The Kid With a Bike is like the flipside of L’Enfant. Here we see the innocent child’s perspective, and the intense focus on Cyril’s character allows for heightened emotional identification with this young desperate boy. This is a cinema of physical and emotional proximity. Other than two very brief scenes (one with Samantha when Cyril disappears to meet Wes for the robbery scheme and one with the victims of the robbery when they think Cyril is dead), the camera is constantly on Cyril. The camera zooms into the child’s face for close-ups asking us to look inside him and through his eyes. The camera tracks the kid as he moves through the streets on his bike, runs away in desperation, climbs trees, fights, and cries. We are almost always with Cyril, looking right at him, or riding along by his side, our eyes glued to his red shirt as he fights his way through the duration of the film.

The camera fluctuates between still shots focusing intently on Cyril’s emotions which are barely contained under his eleven-year-old eyes and fast tracking shots as he rides his bike, flees down stairwells, runs across grass and down sidewalks.  As Cyril moves through the film, an innocent blur of motion and emotion in a grown up world driven by cash exchange that has no meaning to him, it is hard not to identify with this kid. In one early scene, the camera holds steady on Cyril’s still sleeping body. It is impossible not to recognize this child’s extreme vulnerability and innocence as his little body sleeps in the cold hard world of a state institution where he was dumped by his father simply because the boy was an economic nuisance. While the camerawork allows us intimate proximity to Cyril’s emotional life, Thomas Doret’s acting is astoundingly affective. Every nuance of his expression, twitch of his lip, glance of his eyes, or clenching of his muscles speaks oceans of emotional turbulence – his hurt and his refusal to acknowledge his hurt colliding in his young body.

Experiencing the world of the Dardennes through the innocent eyes of Cyril is what makes this film different from the brothers’ other films. While their earlier films inevitably lead the characters to a place of redemption, Cyril is not a character who needs to be redeemed. He is a young boy coping with a world that wants to strip the magic away from childhood. Experiencing the film through Cyril’s perspective allows us to experience the magic of the real. The plight, Cyril’s red shirt, and the bike make the film operate somewhat like a fairytale, but we are always reminded that this is a tale grounded in the very real world. The only fantasy in the film is the one that Cyril clings to about reconciling with his father, and that fantasy is dismantled with clean precision.

Still, because the world is seen through Cyril, there are things we don’t experience in other Dardennes’ films. Most of their films are claustrophobically bleak. They show us a Belgium suffocating in post-industrial gloom, a place where the sun doesn’t shine, grass doesn’t grow, and trees appear to have been replaced by endless rows of nondescript concrete block buildings. There is never any sound that doesn’t come directly from the narrative. All music comes from within the story (the ring of a cellphone, a radio or a CD thrown into a boombox). The reality of this world is relentless, leaving little room for magic other than the spiritual redemption that the characters find within the economic limits of their surroundings.

In The Kid With A Bike, on the other hand, Cyril climbs trees. His favorite hideout is an old empty container from a freight train (the hollow form of traffic in consumer goods) that’s nestled in the woods behind the busy road. He runs across fields of grass. The sun shines. He and Samantha actually ride their bikes through a lakeside park. These may seem like small things, but compared to earlier Dardennes’ films, they represent tremendous breaks with the style and message the filmmakers are known for. These changes indicate a shift in perspective, confirmed by the fact that Cyril maintains a kind of purity and innocence even in the harshest of circumstances, even when he is prompted to beat a newsstand man with a baseball bat. No matter what Cyril does, no matter what is done to him, he remains an innocent victim of economic circumstance. That is why there is still a potential for magic in his life (magic that is grounded in the real) even when all odds seem against him.

The other significant shift in the film is the use of music. On three separate occasions, the Dardennes use passages from Beethoven’s Emperor piano concerto to heighten our experience of Cyril’s plight.  All three signify moments when Cyril is forced to confront reality, but then pushes himself (and his bike) even harder so reality can’t catch up with him. The most resonant scene is when Guy throws the cash to the ground (his final act of dejection), and Cyril leaves the cash and flees on his bike. The Beethoven strikes up right as Cyril turns his back to his father and pedals off into the dark Belgian streets. But the music dissipates, and for a prolonged tracking scene, we hear nothing but Cyril’s breath and the sound of his pedals and bike tires. The music propels us into the tragic reality of Cyril’s life and provokes emotional response in the audience, but it also leads us to a place where Cyril can potentially transcend that reality.

The immediately ensuing soundtrack – Cyril’s breath and the sound of the bike – do the same thing. Those sounds ground us in Cyril’s reality, but also encourage us to flee with him as he pedals alone on his bike. We are inside his very breath as he pedals through the streets attempting to outrun the truth. We can still hear the sound of cars whooshing by, but Cyril is in his insulated world, his bike facilitating his ability to protect himself and flee reality. The fact that he is able to stay in his own world is his saving grace, along with the fact that he has his kindred spirit Samantha still waiting for him. 

Cyril does eventually make it back to Samantha, and thus his bike eventually leads him to a place where he is able to accept his new life and, astonishingly, maintain his childhood innocence even after everything he has experienced. The ending of The Kid With A Bike leads us to a place that could disintegrate into melodramatic tragedy, but instead the film opts for a kind of magic reality. When Cyril is hunted down by the son of the man he robbed, he is hit with a rock and falls from a tree where he lays on the ground apparently dead. We are stunned at this abrupt ending of Cyril’s journey, at the sight of his still body lying on the grass. This body that has moved with such incessant speed throughout the film is brought down by a random throw of a rock. What a small and sad ending to a small and sad life, we can’t help but think. Though the stage is set for a tragic ending, The Kid With A Bike undoes the sentimental Hollywood coming-of-age story. Cyril’s mobile phone rings when Samantha calls, and he stirs, gets up, climbs on his bike and rides off back to the housing estate where he now lives with Samantha instead of his father.

The final scene shows Cyril turning the corner on his bike, just as he has turned a corner in his life – to a place where he can accept his new life with Samantha, and where we the audience can believe in angels and magic as long as we understand that those things are only possible in a world where we acknowledge the limits of the real. The film closes with a shot of the housing estate, firmly situating the film and the boy within the economic reality of its Belgian working-class setting. Wind blows through a single tree. The buildings of the public housing tower above garbage bins and parking lots. The sound of cars continue to move in the distance. The world is both moving and still. The traffic in Cyril’s world is still in fast motion. That’s not going to change. But Cyril has found a place where he can finally slow down. He is not alone, and he has his bike.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

You can read Kim’s Counterpunch review of the Dardenne Brothers last film here.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.