The Kid with a Bike (2011)

In his autobiography, published near the end of his life, Charlie Chaplin addressed the issue of faith this way: “As I grow older I am becoming more preoccupied with faith. We live by it more than we think and achieve by it more than we realize. . . . My faith is in the unknown, in all that we do not understand by reason; I believe that what is beyond our comprehension is a simple fact in other dimensions, and that in the realm of the unknown there is an infinite power for good.”[1] Chaplin saw in life those things which were easily observable, and everything else that wasn’t. He understood that there was much he did not know, much that remained a mystery even to the keenest intellects. His faith was directed toward that mystery.

The latest film from the Dardenne brothers, The Kid with a Bike, incarnates some of that mystery in the encounter between two people. The films of the Dardenne brothers, from 1996’s La Promesse forward to this one, revolve around an encounter with an “other.” That “other” comes in the form of another human being, and yet, through that encounter, we the audience are treated not just to witnessing an encounter between two human beings, but ourselves being led to encounter that mysterious “infinite power for good” of which Chaplin speaks. The Dardenne brothers achieve these repeated encounters through a mastery of narrative storytelling, concise shot-making, striking performances, and attentiveness to the physicality of their subjects. Their work in The Kid with a Bike is no exception.

The film follows a short time in the life of a young boy, Cyril, who has been abandoned by his father. Living at the local boy’s home, Cyril has a chance encounter with a hairdresser, Samantha, a single woman who does the boy a single act of kindness. From there, the relationship develops, and while Cyril serves as the main character and the center around which all the drama turns, it is Samantha’s presence and goodness in his life that prompt such deep and abiding questions: Where does such kindness in a dark and confusing world come from? Why does the presence of kindness continue in Cyril’s life, even as he seems to reject it (or at least test it) time after time? The Dardenne brothers allow this relationship to play out with psychological and emotional complexity, refusing to offer easy answers. In fact, in one scene midway through the film when Cyril asks Samantha why she stays with him, she has no response. Her motives for her goodness are unknown even to her.

And it is this mysterious grace, breaking into Cyril’s world, played out in an intensely personal encounter over several days or weeks, that makes this film such a treasure. The Dardenne brothers have seen something in the world, even in the lives of people who seem to have nothing going for them. They have seen something beautiful and mysterious and good, something unknown and unexplainable, and yet at the same time, absolutely undeniable.

[1] Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (Penguin: New York, 2003), 287.

Lorna’s Silence (2008)

Lorna’s Silence, the 2008 film from the Dardenne brothers, recently played a limited theatrical engagement here in Dallas. It’s always a pleasure to see their work on the big screen, and this film is certainly no exception to the rule. Here, as in the brothers’ four previous full-length fiction films, we find characters situated in a stifling urban milieu, a protagonist placing herself in situations that quickly spin wildly out of her control, and a resolution that resists easy categorization.

Hearkening back to their 1999 film, Rosetta, the brothers again focus their camera on a woman, this one an Albanian immigrant hoping to earn Belgian citizenship through a sham marriage to a drug addict. Lorna has to make several difficult choices along the way, but all of them, at some level, come back to money.

The film opens with the sounds of a bank while the opening credits pass in white over a black background. When the first image finally appears, we see a stack of money changing hands. Knowing the Dardennes, it’s difficult not to think of Robert Bresson’s final film L’argent at this point (their 2007 short film Dans l’Obscurité makes explicit reference to Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar). The narratives end up quite differently, but the two films share a decidedly pessimistic view of money’s role in modern society.

Finances remain the driving factor in Lorna’s Silence through most of its runtime, as people constantly grapple over money, offer money to others, buy cigarettes, get paid for marriages, and take out loans. Everything in Lorna’s life is a transaction—from prescription drugs to a marriage partner, and even to her own identity as a Belgian citizen. Indeed, Lorna’s drive to leave Albania for Belgium is explicitly never spoken about in the film, but all indications are that she came with a boyfriend that they might make a better life for themselves—better as in more economic choices available to them.

The Dardenne brothers highlight this transactional nature of Lorna’s life. People are constantly exchanging cash, a striking series of scenes when so much of modern commerce takes place without coins and bills. Money becomes for Lorna (and all of the other main characters in the film), a means to achieve her dreams—new freedoms, a new place to live, a new job, and a new identity altogether. However, what becomes clear through the film is how little of this dream she actually attains. She has indeed moved from Albania and has a job, but at the price of both freedom and an identity that’s her own. Lorna becomes an indentured servant, and finds that while her location has changed, her options remain dangerously limited.

Because of her situation, Lorna seems distant, cold, and inhuman as the film begins. She has decided to pursue life as transaction, to essentially sell herself in the hopes of a better existence. However, when she actually has to come through on her end of the bargain, she finds some shred of human feeling and conscience left in her. That flame within her stands in danger of being extinguished early in the film, but as she continues to fight the forces arrayed against her on behalf of another human being, she comes alive. Love is the evidence of life in such a world, and Lorna’s struggle reveals that such love comes only with much sacrifice.

Lorna’s life seems to ask: What does it look like to live a truly human existence in the midst of a life-sapping environment where one’s existence is dictated by transactions? Considering life in purely (or even in primarily) economic terms is no life at all, the film seems to suggest. In highlighting this reality, the Dardennes have placed the proverbial finger on the pulse of modern society. Even contemporary religious communities sometimes define themselves in primarily economic terms, using phrases like “Jesus paid our debt in full” and “count the cost” as descriptors of spiritual realities. What kind of hope can we have when those who speak about hope (religious or otherwise) do so in terms that, were they taken at face value like they are in this film, would sap the life right out of their communities?

In typical Dardenne fashion, the film concludes with more of a question mark rather than a period: How can an actual human being live and love in such an economically driven world that knows nothing of either life or love? Does such a world even allow for humanity? And finally, what does it say about us if we’re living comfortably and carefree in such a dehumanizing world?

Rosetta (1999)

Having seen two of the three most recent Dardenne efforts (2002’s The Son and 1996’s La Promesse), I figured I was prepared for their style. Handheld camera. Close-ups. Following behind characters, without being able to see their faces. What I was not prepared for was the relentless energy that this style can bring to the table. Maybe I just missed it in their other films, but Rosetta (1999) has a much greater immediacy to it than their other work. This, I think, is accomplished in two ways: First, editing. Second, Rosetta, the main character.

The opening scene is a great combination of these two factors. As Rosetta storms down hallways and stairwells on her way to who knows where in some non-descript, fluorescent building, the camera strains to keep up. When she goes through a doorway, sometimes the camera follows. At other times, it cuts ahead, almost as if to say that it couldn’t keep up, and if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could they start again. These cuts are immediate, yet the individual shots have continuity to them, in that they continue with her journey through the building. Eventually, as the scene concludes with a confrontation with co-workers, the quick cuts, shaky camera, and extreme close-ups lend a sense of chaos that is appropriate to the character. And while this chaos is not always explicit through the rest of the film, it is always implicit, and through various circumstances, we receive hints about the kind of chaos that must be going on inside Rosetta as she tries to scrape by in life.

She has job troubles, family troubles, and friendship troubles, and has little going for her outside of sheer determination to make something happen for herself. An early scene makes this apparent, as she confronts her mother about some fish she is preparing for dinner. Mom acknowledges that the fish was given to her, which 18-year old Rosetta finds unacceptable. “We aren’t beggars!” she yells at her mother, all the while trying to wrest the fish from her to throw it in the garbage. Rosetta will make it on her own initiative, through her iron will and fierce work ethic. Every time she is offered help, she refuses. She asks for it only once, by my count, and it comes at a particularly low moment for her, when she asks her friend, Riquet, for boots.

This determination and perseverance in her character also reveal themselves in other ways. With the desire for a normal life, yet being surrounded by chaos, Rosetta builds a routine into her life. This includes a hiding place for her boots, her fish traps, and maybe even the waffle stand. She visits these places repeatedly, going through the same motions. These things have a practical purpose, but their placement in the film is at such odds with the hectic pace of the rest of her life that they are almost like touchstones, both for her and for us – finally, something familiar and expected. We know what she is doing with the boots and the traps. We know why she goes to the waffle stand (looking for work).

Yet even with all this structure she tries to build in, and though she finally gets the job, she does not achieve a normal life, at least not like what she had in mind. Even with getting what she wants, she is still confronted with the problems that plague her life, and that cannot be healed with a steady job. All of which leads to the affecting conclusion, where Rosetta’s will reaches its limit. She tries and tries and tries to carry the burden of her life alone, but she cannot. The brilliance of this scene by the Dardenne’s is in being able to illustrate this physically, as Rosetta attempts to get that canister home. As she plods through the RV park, we feel the weight of her burden, yet we cannot do anything to help her. And the only person around, Riquet (on his motorbike, with a use of sound in this scene to create a troubling tension), seems only to want to heap burning coals on her head in judgment. She finally falters, falling to the ground in tears and defeat. She has nothing left. Yet, at her lowest point, there is hope. And in those final few frames, we are treated to a wonderful picture of love and hope. And we have a moment to realize what is happening before the camera cuts away and the credits roll. An abrupt but deeply moving finale – sometimes you can’t make it on your own.

The Son (Le Fils) (2002)

I wish I could say I have a lot of interesting and insightful things to say about this film, treasures and perspectives that have not yet been mined by writers superior to me. I’m not sure that I do, but I simply love this film, and felt the need to jot a few lines about it here. (BTW, if you haven’t seen this yet, stop now, go see it, then read this and give me a call. This film is too good to have that first experience tainted by my ramblings.)

The brothers Dardenne have crafted what seems to me an extraordinarily tight film. There are no throw away lines. There are no throw away moments. With this film like few others, I feel like every image and word spoken need to be there. It’s been remarked by more than a few folks that the camera follows behind Olivier too much. What is so damn interesting about the back of his head that we need to keep seeing it?

In my mind, it serves at least two functions. First, it creates suspense. As we follow behind, weaving around corners and through hallways, we are forced to wonder what he’s coming up on next. Often, he obscures our vision of what he sees. At other times, our vision is obscured by a door, a window frame, a wall. This obscuring both creates tension, for we feel he is doing something important and it forces us to begin to imagine just what it is he might be doing. Thus we become more engaged, and the tension of the moment rises a bit.

Second, by placing the camera so often behind Olivier, we are forced to relate to him – we experience this film through his eyes. We are therefore able to enter into his decision-making process, at times. And so for the bulk of the first half of the film, we are looking mostly at him. Later, when he is joined by his apprentice, we see the boy through Olivier’s eyes, both for better and for worse.

And of course, this experience of things through Olivier brings us into the center of this film, that which makes it such a universal work of art. In those final scenes, as Olivier so clearly struggles in his relationship with this boy, we ride the roller coaster of his emotions. We see the growing frustration with the boy, as he slams the brakes, and later snaps at the idea of being a guardian to the boy. We see him moved to intense anger in the car as he questions the boy about his past. We see that anger continue to seethe as he slides the ruler to the boy as they cut the planks. And of course, we see all that come to a head in the conclusion, only to see the anger subside, and the boy resuming his place alongside his teacher.

Many will say that this is a film about forgiveness. One cannot argue with that assessment. That process works itself out in Olivier. And the only way it happens is for one to have some meaningful contact with the offending party. But the true greatness of this film is that it goes beyond forgiveness, to another level entirely. Forgiveness merely paves the way that Olivier might adopt him as a son. He will make him his own, and care for him as his own and give him all that is his – not as a replacement of his biological child, but because of the death of that child.