CANNES REVIEW: The Dardenne Brothers Break From Formula with Le Gamin au Vélo

gamin_au_velo300.jpgIf you've seen even a modest number of European art-house films in your lifetime, you're familiar with the following formula: Act I, child with problems (emotional problems, family problems, what have you) is introduced. Act II, said confused, troubled child gets into big trouble by seeking out the wrong kind of father figure, committing a misdeed in a fit of frustration, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time; luckily, a kind someone comes to the rescue, offering the troubled child some respite and a dim ray of hope. Will it last forever? Do you even need to ask?

Finally, in Act III, troubled child either commits another misdeed or, again, is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and this time, things are worse. Ending may be completely dismal or marginally optimistic, depending on the filmmaker and other specifics of the material.

The Dardenne brothers' Le Gamin au Vélo, or The Kid with a Bike, follows that blueprint rather closely through Act II -- so closely, in fact, that it's a relief they recoil from the desolation you expect in Act III. That's causing some critics here to dismiss the film as being somewhat fluffy, particularly for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose names are generally uttered here in criticville in hushed, respectful tones. (The Dardennes have won the Palme d'Or twice, once in 1999 for Rosetta and again in 2005 for L'Enfant. Their last picture was the 2008 Lorna's Silence).

I've never been sold on the Dardennes -- I generally find them too mannered, too persistent and deliberate in their efforts to make us feel something -- and Le Gamin au Vélo hasn't changed my mind. The picture is a bit wispy, somewhat wayward in both its emotional and narrative focus. But it does have a few moments of grace, and its young star, a kid named Thomas Doret, has some critics murmuring about the possibility that he could win the Best Actor award here next week.

Doret plays Cyril, an 11-ish redhead with a buzz cut who's in perpetual movement from the movie's first minute: Peripatetic, quizzical and persistent, Cyril is obsessed with reconnecting with his father (played by Dardennes regular Jérémie Renier), who has essentially abandoned him to a local home for displaced or problem kids. Cyril also wants his bike back -- he believes it's still in the apartment his father has recently abandoned -- and with the help of Samantha (Cécile De France), a quietly compassionate hairdresser he meets by chance, he does get it back. Recognizing, in some basic, primal way, that he's found someone who might be able to give him the care and affection he needs, Cyril latches onto her (figuratively and even at one point literally, he clamps his arms around her in an iron, monkeylike embrace) and persuades her to let him live with her on the weekends.

But even under Samantha's guidance and care, Cyril is still something of a lost kid, which causes him to fall under the spell of a local hood. Here's where the Act II action kicks in. But the Dardennes surprise us with an ending that holds out a very real possibility for redemption. Le Gamin au Vélo is also beautifully shot -- the images have a clean, crisp, no-nonsense look that's almost a metaphorical counterpart to Cyril's confident physicality as he whizzes from here to there.

Doret, for all his preternatural confidence in this role, is still an unassuming and sympathetic presence. His body is gangly and puppet-like in that preadolescent way, but every movement is resolute: When he chases after the various kids who, repeatedly, try to steal his precious bike, he throws off sparks of grim determination, like a single-minded marathon runner. Maybe, in the end, he outruns the movie. But it's hard to take your eyes off him as he sprints into the distance.

Read more of Stephanie Zacharek's coverage of Cannes 2011 here.