Directing in tandem: Belgium's Dardenne Brothers pilot tale of 'Kid with a Bike'
Climbing staircases, and traversing the labyrinthian hallways leading to a Lincoln Center green room, somebody asks the Dardenne Brothers if they feel like their young protagonist in The Kid with a Bike. For much of the movie, 11-year-old Cyril is either running or riding his bicycle. There is laughter, but neither of the trim Belgian filmmakers, 61-year-old Jean-Pierre and 57-year-old Luc, breaks his stride. In New York City for interviews and a New York Film Festival public screening, the Dardennes answer all other questions thoughtfully, yet with a reserve that lends an enigmatic quality to their personalities.
The Kid with a Bike, the Dardennes’ eighth narrative feature, will open in U.S. theatres via IFC’s Sundance Selects label on March 16. It marks a first in their oeuvre—the casting of an international star, Belgian-born Cécile de France (Hereafter), in a major role. Another noteworthy difference in the filmmakers’ cinematic realism, which generally precludes a musical score, is a leitmotiv for young Cyril (Thomas Doret) from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. Cyril chooses Samantha (de France) as a step-parent after his father, played by Jérémie Renier, abandons him. This is Renier’s third role in a Dardenne Brothers film; his debut, at age 14, was in La Promesse (1996).
Like Renier, all of the Dardennes’ fledgling stars go on to film careers, including Émilie Dequenne in Rosetta (1999) and Déborah François in L’Enfant (2005). L’Enfant garnered the filmmakers their second Palme d’Or at Cannes; Rosetta was their first, with Dequenne collecting Best Actress. Arta Dobroshi, of the upcoming Late Bloomers, was unknown outside her native Yugoslavia when she appeared in Lorna’s Silence (2009). The Dardennes handed Olivier Gourmet his breakout role when they cast him alongside Renier in La Promesse; he has since appeared in six of their movies, most notably in Le Fils (The Son, 2002).
Thirteen-year-old Thomas Doret was discovered in a casting call. His debut portrayal of a determined but very vulnerable Cyril, placed in a foster home by his father after his grandmother’s death, is both disturbing and credible. That authenticity, which the Dardenne Brothers inspire in all the young actors they mentor, is what initially unsettles an audience. In the back of viewers’ minds is the niggling question of from what well a teenager dredges up the disquieting emotions a Dardenne Brothers movie demands of them. The answer lies at the core of the writing-directing team’s method of filmmaking, which begins much like the rehearsal of a dance troupe. “We hope by starting with the physical work,” Luc Dardenne explains, “that we will free the actors, and us, too.”
In this signature behavioral training, a 40-day rehearsal period before production, the actors engage in teamwork, and develop the level of stamina—the Dardennes do dozens of takes—required for their roles. “We don’t hire a fight master,” Luc says. “The actors get to know us through physical contact, and they get to know their acting partners. This helps to establish a climate of trust.” Finding the gestures or stances unique to their actors and, by extension, the actors identifying expressions or poses intrinsic to their personalities, the Dardennes allow cast members to make their characters their own. Dialogue, emotion and gesture all meld to create a performance that appears artless, a key component of the realism which is the hallmark of the filmmakers’ mise-en-scène.
“We need to turn them to work,” Luc says, which is a reference to their method, but also to the resulting self-conscious psychological state of the actors that is key to the Dardennes’ meaningful depiction of their working-class protagonists. This is most evident in Gourmet’s performance in Le Fils, where the preciseness with which he approaches carpentry, and the teaching of woodworking to his students, illustrates a level of craft worthy of admiration. In child protagonists such as Rosetta and Cyril, that physical activity is a relief from psychic pain, a healing and rather enviable resiliency, which nonetheless springs from the circumstances of their lives.
The Dardennes, whose movies are set in their hometown, are undoubtedly filmmakers of conscience, but quietly so. “We saw people like our characters a little bit through the window,” Jean-Pierre says of their working-class neighbors in the Belgian city of Seraing, “but we did not live as they did. They interested us a lot, though.” Among those characters are the father-and-son team in La Promesse who house and exploit illegal immigrants, the eponymous teenager in Rosetta whose desire for normalcy is thwarted by an alcoholic mother, and Gourmet’s carpenter in Le Fils, who discovers among his pupils the boy who murdered his son. In their misery lie the seeds of their transformation. As for their novice actors, the stand-ins for the laborers of Seraing, the Dardennes have, one at a time, “turned them to work.”
The brothers, who share credit for directing, producing and screenwriting, find inspiration in real life, or in stories recounted to them. For The Kid with a Bike, they first imagined a boy’s expression of his anger. The movie opens in an office of the foster home where Cyril and his teacher are attempting to reach Guy, Cyril’s father, on the telephone. The number has been disconnected, but Cyril insists on trying again, wrenching the phone away from his teacher and dialing himself. He needs to find his father and his bike. “We thought of a bike,” Luc explains, “because we said to ourselves, it’s a boy and he’s full of violence. We pictured him doing things that were dangerous, like wheelies, or getting up on top of the bike, putting all his energy and his anger into the bike.”
The bike soon figured prominently in the plot. “It gives him the possibility of leaving the foster home,” Luc says, “and of seeing his father. He also enters the forest when his bike is stolen.” There, Cyril meets Wes, a troubled teenager, who uses him to commit a crime. Jean-Pierre adds that the bike highlights the fairytale aspect of the movie as well. “The first time Cyril goes into the woods, we are in wide angle,” he notes. “He stops just before he goes in, right at the edge of the woods, and we underscore the danger he is in. Like Perrault’s fairytale ‘Hop o’ My Thumb,’ we are afraid for Cyril in the same way we are for the little boy who leaves breadcrumbs in the woods when his parents take him there to lose him.” In the Dardennes’ films, peril and the reckless acts they inspire are mitigated by the possibility of redemption.
Often compared to Robert Bresson for their elliptical style and use of non-professional actors, the Dardennes differ with the French master in several significant ways. “We are not as hard as Bresson,” Luc observes. In The Kid, when Cyril is trying to escape his pursuers who will return him to the foster home, he runs into a clinic, spies Samantha, grabs her, and then holds her in a desperate embrace. “We thought that when the boy took her in his arms as he did, Samantha felt something very strong,” Luc explains. Jean-Pierre adds: “In a way, one could think that they have something to accomplish together. These are two souls that are alone.” The “souls” in the Dardennes’ films almost always form new families from broken ones.
During pre-production, Luc and Jean Pierre use a small beta camera to map camera placement and movement. They record rehearsals with the same camera. “We try to find a way of filming all of the scenes in all of the sets,” Luc says. Then, when we have found the movements we want for the camera and the actors, we call in the technical team.” The Dardennes, who began as documentary filmmakers, discuss their plan for each location with cinematographer Alain Marcoen, who has been their DP on six features. During production, suggestions from cast or crew can change any aspect of the film.
If the Dardennes feel any loss of novelty for their techniques after more than 30 years of collaboration, it is not evident in their demeanor. They smile when asked about their unusual sibling partnership. Jean-Pierre points to the influence of 88-year-old Italian-French dramatist Armand Gatti, with whom he studied theatre. (Luc’s degree is in philosophy.) “When I finished school, I kept working with him and then Luc joined me,” he explains. “We were really impressed by the work we had done with Armand. He gave us the feeling that we could do things. At first, we did documentaries, a little bit like we had seen him do. That’s how it all began.”
Thanks to Dominique Borel for translation and editorial suggestions.