The latest Cannes Film Festival entry from Belgium's Dardenne brothers is the story of an abandoned boy, his unlikely savior and his beloved bicycle.
"The Kid With a Bike" tells the alternately brutal and tender tale of 11-year-old Cyril, left in a children's home by his feckless father; Samantha, a hairdresser who almost by accident becomes his surrogate mother; and the bike he pedals furiously through a chaotic world. The last film to get this much mileage from a bicycle was "Breaking Away."
It's another gritty slice of working-class Belgian life from the filmmaking siblings— and also a fairy tale.
"At one point we nearly called the film 'A Modern Fairy Tale,'" Jean-Pierre Dardenne, one half of the duo, told reporters after the film's first screening Sunday at Cannes. Cyril is a lost child, "a bit like Pinocchio or Red Riding Hood."
"He has to undergo certain experiences and loses his illusions," Dardenne said. "There's the forest, which is a place of temptation, there's the bad wolf ... and then there's the good fairy who saves Cyril."
Jean-Pierre and his brother, Luc — who jointly write, produce and direct their films — are Cannes royalty. Five of their films have appeared in competition here over the years, and two have won the top prize, the Palme d'Or — "Rosetta" in 1999 and "L'Enfant" ("The Child") in 2005.
The brothers are adored by Cannes cinephiles for the seemingly effortless naturalism with which they depict life on society's fringes.
The balance between realism and fairy-tale redemption is one the brothers say they found easy to strike.
Luc Dardenne — at 57 the younger brother by three years — said the film grew from the real-life case of a Japanese boy whose father dumped him in an orphanage, but re-imagined as a love story.
"The woman in our film is capable of saving the child, capable of giving him something that will give him back his childhood," he said. "For us this is a beautiful tale. It's a tale of very successful love.
"One can view it as a critical view of our society. We adults are often swept up in our own self-image ... We tend to look inwards at ourselves instead of looking at other people. So indeed our film does reflect life today in society, but it's an exception."
The film is powered by the performances of Thomas Doret as the angry, inarticulate but vulnerable Cyril, and Cecile de France — a Belgian actress best known to English-speaking audiences as a tsunami survivor obsessed by the afterlife in Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" — as Samantha.
The actress said Eastwood and the Dardennes had almost nothing in common — "apart from their talent, of course."
While Dardenne movies involve meticulous rehearsal and preparation, the American director "doesn't rehearse, he doesn't come when we are trying out the costumes, there's often just one take."
"Eastwood tries to put spontaneity in the film," she said. "He's looking for the magical instant. ... There's a huge adrenaline rush as a result. This energy is channeled into a very short, intense climax.
"With the Dardenne brothers, the same thing happens but it's much more spread out over time."