Le Gamin au Vélo (The Kid with a Bike, 2011) (Movie Notes)

3 May

Leaving the theater after seeing Le Gamin au Vélo this week, I had a sense that I could hear every sound around me, every individual raindrop and leaf rustle, every footfall and tire squeak, more clearly.  Despite the misty air, I felt that I could see the world as if it were bathed in a strong light. This is a sensation that I have upon leaving films that have touched me deeply. Simply put, they alter my perception.

The film opens claustrophobically, with a young boy listening in disbelief as a recording tells him that the number he has dialed has been disconnected. An off-screen voice urges him to hang up. The tight framing implies how alone Cyril is, how desperately he needs the person at the other end of the phone to be there. In the next few moments the camera jerks around, retaining its tight focus, and finally following with jerky, handheld motion as Cyril attempts to run away. He scales a chain link fence topped with barbed wire; we understand that he is at an institution of some kind and the man speaking to him is his caretaker.

Cyril is a lost child, abandoned by his father at “the home” because the father simply cannot take care of him.  He is isolated–by his lack of family or friends, by the camera, by society–yet he is desperate to connect.  When he runs away to his father’s former apartment to verify the story he’s been told, he grabs hold of a woman in a doctor’s waiting room as a way to avoid returning to the home. She will, ultimately, change his life.

Français : L'équipe du film "Le gamin à v...

Français : L’équipe du film “Le gamin à vélo” au festival de Cannes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Samantha, for reasons the film never makes clear, is moved by his plight to buy his bicycle (which his father had sold) and return it to him. He asks if she will be his foster family for weekends. Thus begins an unlikely story–a youngish single woman taking in a boy, offering him structure, caring, and support.

Cyril wants to see his father and when Samantha facilitates this, she also witnesses his little heart being broken. It is clear that she will not abandon him after this moment. Perhaps because she feels responsible, perhaps because she has grown attached to him. Even he starts hanging out with a bad guy, lies to her, and eventually gets in trouble with the law, she sticks by him. She is steadfast, proving that while it may “take a village,” one person can make all the difference in the life of a child.

In some ways, Samantha’s fostering of Cyril made me think of Dora in Walter Salles‘s brilliant 1998 Central Station. Samantha, however, is neither old nor dour. And as a hairdresser, she certainly doesn’t seem to dislike people.  Rather, she seems to need Cyril as much as he needs her, though we never know concretely why.

The big conversation in the theater as I exited was “Why does Samantha take care of Cyril, even choosing him over her lover?” One woman commented that she expected to learn that Samantha had herself been in an orphanage or foster home.  Her motivation is never clarified and, yet, I think that is the point–we don’t need motivation to be empathetic or to be selfless, sometimes we just need the opportunity.

The eponymous bike provides an interesting leitmotif: It is a symbol of continuity from one phase of his life to another, reminding him of his father’s love even as its sale demonstrates his father’s abandonment. It provides transportation, companionship, and (for the viewer) suspense.  Through the bicycle we understand Cyril’s instability and uncertainty. And through the bicycle, we see at last that he has found companionship and trust.

I am a bit embarassed to say that Le gamin au vélo is the first film I have seen by the prolific Belgian Dardennes brothers. It hits my sweet spot–a film about a gritty socioeconomic reality  centering around disaffected (almost) adolescents told with compassion, conveyed with tour de force acting, and evoking thoughtful response.

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