Apr 4, 2012

Kid with a Bike: Movie Review

(Le Gamin au vélo, French subtitles)
Samantha  -   Cecile De France
Cyril – Thomas Doret

Kid with a Bike is a Belgian film, though I’m not sure how important that is—Cyril, the kid in the title, is 12-ish and might live anywhere. He's obsessive about his bike because it’s what’s left after his father has abandoned him in a state-run orphanage. The bike is also a vehicle into which he can pedal the energy of his rage and grief.

See this film. Despite its flaws, it’s moving and interesting. There is gravitas without an oppressive load of dark message (though I wasn’t sure I’d feel that way after the first fifteen minutes—don’t leave early).

Fatherless homes have become such a common situation in the U.S. that some might question just how much a paternal presence matters these days. Kid with a Bike offers one answer, although that’s skewed by the unexplained fact that Cyril's mother is absent as well. This mystery is a weakness in the film, and it could have been prevented in a sentence or two of dialogue.
Cyril’s father is a handsome, fit-looking, blonde, defeated nebbish. Full of self-pity, he's an easy target for our judgment. But he’s also genuinely down on his luck and may not be entirely wrong in deciding he’s unable to care for Cyril. But of course we want him to want to care for Cyril, and the scenes between them are wrenching. Yet there’s some restraint there too; a lesser movie might have given us a one-dimensional, abusive ogre of a father, a man even easier to hate.

Cyril’s addictive need for such a flawed father is instructive. He probably feels the kind of rejection that adults do after a serious but failed romance with a flawed partner, and the boy's desperation becomes an impressive fury. In the movie’s first half-hour or so, Cyril is pretty much a wild animal; later he’ll be nicknamed Pitbull, and that feature of his characterization is as at least spellbinding and worrisome as anything else in his psyche.

Kid with a Bike is a fine effort at fleshing out with real humans all those statistics about fatherless homes, juvenile delinquency, gang violence, and the like. Bottom Line: Cyril is a statistic and a real live boy. In the U.S. we’re likely to think of gangs as ethnic groups—black, Hispanic, or neo-Nazi.  So it’s informative to be reminded that Cyril is a Caucasian kid who might falls prey to moral drift and criminality in an unnamed Belgian city.
But the boy is only 12, and the movie isn’t over yet. Don’t worry—these writers, directors, and actors won’t lapse into Hollywoodism; they won’t give the enraged orphan a puppy and a sunset to ride into. Nor will it be a completely noir experience. In the end we’re not sure what to predict about Cyril’s future, except that it’s likely to be multidimensional, as most of human experience is.  Kid with a Bike takes place in green summer, and we get some bright splotches of color; Cyril often wears red shirts. In spite of the psychological drama, the characters and settings seem almost average—that is to say, realistic and universal.  

A crucial exception might occur in the person of Samantha, the movie’s second major character. She’s a hairdresser who lives in a tiny apartment attached to her shop, and she becomes Cyril’s weekend guardian. We badly need to know what it is that motivates her remarkable generosity. As is, we pretty much have to accept her as a saint, along with the proposition that goodness and self-sacrifice will forever be mysteries, or perhaps inherent human characteristics that need no explanation.

As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” For some of us, such saints rode away on Santa Claus’s last sled. If the notion of wondrous generosity in certain humans is the argument, we still need hints about where it comes from, and I saw none of that. I can guess—a child that Samantha lost, or the child she somehow never had, or a series of unhappy love affairs. But that all remains vague and thus distracting.

From the early vision of Samantha’s bra straps, having snuck out of her sleeveless top (or were they arranged that way?), her feminine, but nicely chiseled shoulders made me wonder if a martial arts scene was on its way. It wasn’t—well, not exactly. Samantha does need to be physically fit in a couple of scenes.

But I was left to ponder the possibility of a Hollywood-esque decision to play up her beauty in a superficially sexual way—Samantha, the Saint Who Was Hot. One could argue that that actually works; her natural, understated physical beauty creates a concrete manifestation of her inner, spiritual beauty. Self-sacrificing generosity must be gorgeous. But look how hard I have to work at getting to that—never confident that that's what's there. We should be pulled into the movie’s world and its people, without such distracting, nagging doubts.

There are two other, minor problems in the film. First, a brief musical interlude—the Adagio from Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto—occurs maybe three or four times, and it struck me as self-conscious, intrusive, and irrelevant, albeit gorgeous. 
Secondly, there’s the head-jerking closure, and for those who don’t like it, “minor problem” might sound like an inadequate label. But I think “minor” is accurate—if the ending is a problem at all. I’m not sure it was right, but I’m even less sure it was wrong. It conveys an emotional flatness and sense of query—no harps or choirs of moral conclusion and no endless midnight with demons on every street corner. 

That might make it the perfect ending. Maybe life is a bag of charcoal; maybe life is filled with kids who turn down one street and not another—at least for the moment.


Pasadena Adjacent said...

I watched "A Dangerous Mind" the other night and had difficulties with it. Namely the performance of Keira Knightly. I love pointy features on dogs and cats but find hard edges annoying on people. She exaggerated every point and I wanted to smack her. Also, anyone that deranged (according to her overacting) could never walk out, yet become a doctor. Well maybe, but I just don't believe it

Banjo52 said...

PA, I thought maybe I'd reviewed it--"A Dangerous METHOD," that is, but apparently not. I thought about I saw it in Feb. and liked it better than you did because psychology interests me. But I don't know all that much about it, so the Freud-Jung thing kept my attention. Even so, I agree that Knightly seemed over the top--and yes, even if that portrait is accurate in real life, it has to be made convincing (or palatable?) as a film.

PJ said...

The photo of the man mowing while his son follows behind him is so heart rending in contrast to the story in your review.

I don't know what moves the human heart to do what it does, especially why parents can't or don't care for their children but I think I know what sustains love and it has to do with empathy. You can't love someone beyond passion or obsession unless you open yourself to who they are when you're not around.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Wow, I haven't heard of this movie. Thank you for the introduction to it. Your photos compliment your thoughts perfectly.
I hope it is playing locally!

Banjo52 said...

Paula, that sounds perfectly right to me. Sometimes I wonder if the empathy supply is running low, but I bet every era has wondered about that.

Brenda, thanks. The pics aren't new, but they seemed to fit. Hope you get a chance to see the flick. It's showing at one of our 2.5 art theaters. The big screen's not crucial, but I'm big on settings, so I prefer it. This Belgian city didn't feel as distinctive as a lot of European sites in movies, yet it did seem different from the U.S.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I wanted to like the movie because of the subject matter and the director. I'm minimally proficient on Freud but have a better understanding of Jung (having read "Jung on Alchemy")

It's an interesting time right now with the re-emergence of apocalyptic visions. Remember the 70's (earthquake - the Poseidon Adventure- Towering Inferno etc). Before that, the group LA Fine Art Squad.....

I just saw my third planet in peril film called Melancholia.

Anonymous said...

Belgium doesn't turn out many movies, or at least many movies that make it over here, but I've liked every one I've seen.

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