Le Gamin au vélo (2011)

3 01 2012

In a year where the most acclaimed films seemed like they were constantly trying to be transcendent and spiritual, it’s a joy to be reminded of the beauty that lies in simplicity. Who better to remind us of this than the Dardenne brothers? After all, they haven’t strayed much from their social verite aesthetic that made such a splash in the arthouse market with 1996’s La Promesse. If there’s anything “wrong” about how the Dardennes are making movies, it’s that their mastery is almost repetitive. They make it look too easy on a technical level, almost to the point where their efficiency is boring. It’s not exactly a problem at any point since the stories themselves tend to be engrossing, but their social conscious (so to speak) does sometime overshadow the perfect flow of their visuals.

One could argue that the Dardenne’s way of filming has had a negative impact on film making as a whole. The constantly probing handheld camera has been repeated and translated into the vocabulary of lazier filmmakers in need of capturing a sense of spontaneity in their films. It’s a dumb argument to make, but I mention it because the less talented imitators all share a need to reinforce a sense of reality. Here, though, the reality is probably too frustrating for the audience. There’s no poetic or even “cinematic” interludes that help balance the unflinching wandering eye of the camera’s lens. I’m not naive enough to think that anyone who actually watches this movie is going to be shocked by what unfolds (it’s pretty typical fare for the Dardennes, honestly) but the frustration I am trying to describe is an extension of making a “realist” film. John Cassavetes, who I love, photographed his films similarly but the difference is that his films constantly threw the characters into uncomfortable and dramatic sequences. In other words, there was a reason for the camera’s presence. The difference with the Dardennes is that this is not always true. There’s moments of “dead air” so to speak, perhaps a spark for the countless Bresson comparisons that the brothers still receive.

A perfect example of this “dead air” is the completely empty relationship between the child protagonist, Cyril and the local drug dealer. Cyril sees this as an opportunity for male companionship, a category in which he is sorely lacking. His need overwhelms any type of common sense, something that happens frequently in children. He seems to not question the influence of the drug dealer, and quickly finds himself comfortable in his house. The conversations Cyril has with the drug dealer are useless, not even “cute” or clever. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and not in the way that other filmmakers (namely anyone who has ever made a movie about a romantic relationship) capture in a more charming manner. Cyril’s friendships seem to end as quickly as they begin, probably because he is (literally) always on the move.

This is the perfect contrast (perhaps too perfect, if we’re going to nitpick) to Cyril’s maternal figure, Samantha, who adopts him following Cyril’s escape from school and subsequent quest to find his dad. He is resistant to Samantha, and denies her basic human compassion, at least at first. She cares for him way too much and he doesn’t care, perhaps because she’s a woman or perhaps because he’s scared, but probably because of both. The film’s conclusion does not fit into the simplistic mold of someone being the perfect mother figure. It is modeled after the belief that Samantha and Cyril can sustain a more normal life, but it’s at the cost of a child knowing that his father willfully neglected him and unofficially disowned him.

The movie concludes with Cyril sustaining a concussion, getting up, and walking away from the camera. The action is a relief, at first, as we realize he is not dead but it’s a red herring. Cyril is still living with Samantha and he’s still going to be a brat to her, even if there is a hint at the “turning a new leaf” theme. More importantly, the admiration, nay attention of his father is something Cyril will never be able to achieve. In other words, it’s a movie that is hopeless but not draining. There’s a life for Cyril and Samantha still, but it’s not ideal, and their family dynamic is built around the collapse of a real family dynamic.

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