Unweaving The Rainbow

23 04 2012


The Kid with a Bike, Dardenne Brothers, Dardennes, Le Gamin Au Velo

'The Kid with a Bike'

Warning: like a car built in the 1980s, the article below may contain spoilers.

The latest film from the Dardenne brothers, The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin Au Vélo), was out in UK cinemas last month. The story of a young boy’s search for parental affection after being abandoned by his feckless father, it continues the brothers’ run of intense, character-driven dramas set in the post-industrial Belgian town of Seraing, where they grew up.

A hallmark of the Dardennes’ work – perhaps even its defining feature – is their adherence to a kind of gritty but humanistic realism. They’re big fans of Britain’s Ken Loach and, like Loach, they try to present working class characters and their problems in a straightforward, unmannered way, eschewing most of the usual conventions of Hollywood-style film-making.

So although we can see that the titular kid with the titular bike (Thomas Doret) has been dealt a rough hand in life, the directors avoid sentimentalising his predicament. In fact, he spends much of the film testing the sympathy that we, and the woman who decides to care for him (Cécile de France), feel for him, attacking people who are trying to help him and getting involved in petty crime.

In general, The Kid with a Bike is powerful stuff, but one scene in particular almost ruined the film for me. Recruited by an older boy to mug a convenience store owner, the tiny Cyril (for that’s his name) rushes towards a much bigger, taller man and knocks him unconscious by swiping once at his midriff with a baseball bat. The unfortunate shopkeeper lies silent and unbloodied at Cyril’s feet, before emerging later in the film displaying none of the ill effects (bruising, mental trauma) that one might associate with having been knocked unconscious. In the same scene Cyril goes on to knock out a second person in the same way, but in the resulting legal proceedings gets off with a slap on the wrist and a fine.

Now in a different film this scene might be acceptable, even if it does stretch the limits of credibility somewhat, but in a Dardenne brothers film it’s a disaster.

I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last, to compare the experience of watching a film to that of dreaming. More than this, movie-going is akin to entering a collective dream, a whole world prepared for us in advance by the film-makers. The film quickly establishes its territory in terms of mood and style and tells us the things that it wants us to believe. An apocalypse has returned us to the stone age! People can travel in time! Will Smith is Muhammad Ali! Once this spell has been cast, however, it can be broken all too easily if a particular scene steps outside the boundaries that the film has set for itself.

Ali, Muhammad Ali

Floating like a butterfly with The Fresh Prince...

So while sinister cowboys and backwards-talking dwarves are all perfectly acceptable in David Lynch’s movie world, something as small as an unnatural-looking fight scene can ruin a film by Ken Loach or the Dardennes. In Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris it’s fine for us to see only the romanticised chocolate-box side of the city but in most serious French cinema this just wouldn’t, erm, couper la moutarde, as they say.

Scenes that fracture the whole texture of a film in this way are generally the result of mistakes, misjudgements, or downright incompetence. For a textbook example of how to unweave the cinematic rainbow see Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, where day and night scenes are cut together, actors are substituted for one another from one scene to the next, and clunkiness abounds in terms of the set and props.

A rarer breed is the film that sets out deliberately to break the mood and discombobulate its audience with planned non-sequiturs and pratfalls. The films of the French New Wave, and of Jean-Luc Godard in particular, are full of this kind of stuff of course, from the cameraman reflected in a mirror to the use of slogans, jump-cuts and other tactics designed to wake the viewer from the collective dream, or at least to get a bad night’s cinematic sleep.

Ed Wood

'Plan 9 From Outer Space'

To a certain extent, a film that grips and involves can get away with a few unintended bloopers. It was only on my third or fourth viewing of Todd Solondz’s Happiness, for example, that I noticed the sound boom dropping gratuitously into shot in a couple of scenes. Sometimes these little mistakes can act almost as cinematic seasoning for an otherwise very good film. A quick trawl of IMDB lists a dozen or so continuity errors for Hitchcock’s Vertigo but really, when all’s said and done, who cares? None of these little moments undermines the integrity of the film or the dreamworld conjured up by the director because Vertigo, like all of Hitchcock’s thrillers, exists in a cinematic, self-contained world of its own where ‘realism’ per se is never the goal.

The mugging scene in The Kid with a Bike sticks in the craw so much partly because later in the film, when Cyril falls to the ground from the upper branches of a tall tree, the moment is brutally, painfully real. We feel his pain in a very physical way and assume that he’s been killed. The fact that the Dardennes handle this scene so well, and that the rest of the film is so believable and imbued with their trademark ‘realism’ flags the mugging scene up as a rare, if unfortunate, misjudgement.

Oh well, we all have our off days I suppose.






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