Friday, April 20, 2012

The Dardennes + De France: A Look at THE KID WITH A BIKE

Today The Kid with a Bike, the latest award-winning feature film by the Dardenne Brothers, arrives at BMFI. Our Programming Intern Dan Santelli takes a look at the Dardennes, their filmography, and The Kid with a Bike's stunning lead actress, Cecile De France.

The Dardennes + De France: A Look at The Kid with a Bike
By Dan Santelli, BMFI Programming Intern

With over thirty years of filmmaking under their belts, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, known in auteurist circles as “The Dardenne Brothers”, emerge once again with their much acclaimed The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin au velo).

Starring Belgian actress Cecile De France (best known to Americans for her work in Clint Eastwood's Hereafter), The Kid with a Bike is about a young boy (Thomas Doret) and his budding friendship with Samantha (De France), who agrees to become a weekend foster parent for him after he is abandoned by his father.

While their latest effort continues their work of realist cinema, The Kid with a Bike is perhaps more approachable, with a screenplay influenced by the structure of classic fairy tales. Garnering the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the Dardenne’s sixth narrative feature reworks several themes and ideas from the films of Italian Neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica, particularly his 1946 masterwork Bicycle Thieves.

Of course, the Dardenne Brothers are not the sole reasons for the success of their pictures. Much credit is due to their consummate professionalism in working with actors. Through extended rehearsal periods prior to the production phase, the Dardennes possess an inherent gift for drawing accomplished performances from their cast, who are often non-professionals.

Cecile De France and Thomas Doret star in the Dardennes Brothers' latest film, The Kid with a Bike.

Miss De France, with her bright, wide smile and striking versatility, has emerged as one of the great undiscovered European treasures of recent years. Having only played supporting roles in two American features (Disney’s 2004 Around the World in 80 Days and the aforementioned Hereafter), she’s remained under the radar here while establishing herself as a major talent in the French and Belgian film industry. In The Kid with a Bike, Miss De France has shed her expressive acting style in favor of a more minimalist approach. In a recent interview, Miss De France stated that “restraint is much more a part of my range now. I want to continue to create and invent, but learning how not to do so was such a rich experience.”

Filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne got their start in documentary films.
With an eye for naturalism and a punctual sense of authenticity throughout their previous works, the Dardenne’s prominence in America has only been confined to hardcore cinephiles and elite film critics. American film critic J. Hoberman raves:
“The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have a style and set of interests that are as instantly recognizable as those of any filmmakers in the world…The remarkable thing about the Dardennes—who made documentaries for two decades, years before going fictional—is their visceral single-mindedness. Each of their movies is an odyssey (toward grace?) through a world that could hardly seem more drably material.”
Their films have twice earned the Palme D’Or, the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, for the rapturous L’Enfant and the unsentimental majesty of Rosetta. With the imminent US release of what is perhaps their most accessible feature to date, audiences get a chance to discover at the back catalogue and uncover the magic surrounding these two talented filmic artists.

Want to see more films from the Dardennes Brothers and The Kid with a Bike's leading lady? Keep reading for my favorites.

L’Enfant (d. The Dardenne Brothers, 2005)

Living off their welfare checks, young lovers Sonia and Bruno find themselves strapped for cash when Sonia gets pregnant. Once Sonia has given birth, Bruno promptly sells the baby to the black market in exchange for money. Shocked by his actions, Sonia turns him away, forcing Bruno to seek out and discover what happened to the baby. Despite its dismally sounding plot, L’Enfant (The Child) is far from depressing and exhibits some of the Dardenne’s most audacious filmmaking.

Shot in and around the industrial town of Seraing, the rough hand-held camerawork establishes a haunting sense of place as Bruno scrounges around, in hopes of righting his terrible wrongdoing. The Dardenne’s direct for a sense of immediacy and their experience in documentary lingers throughout.

Most filmmakers who make the jump from documentary to fiction adopt conventional narrative techniques. However, one of the things that sets the Dardennes apart is how they arrive, at times, in the middle of a scene, a nod to the limitations and sensibility of documentary filmmaking. By doing so, they miss whatever initiated or built up the scene and stay with the characters for a few seconds longer than most narrative directors would before cutting away to the next scene.

The Dardennes won their second Palme D’Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival with this feature, but it failed to find an audience in the States, causing L’Enfant to fade into obscurity. Seek it out and you’ll discover one of the great foreign films of the last ten years.

Also recommended by the Dardenne Brothers: Rosetta (1999) and The Son (2002).

High Tension (Haute Tension) (d. Alexandre Aja, 2003)

Cecile De France stars in the stylish horror film High Tension.

Prior to her work with the Dardennes and Eastwood, Miss De France turned in a mostly silent but compelling physical performance as college student Marie in genre filmmaker Alexandre Aja’s extravagantly stylish and hyper-violent Euro-slasher High Tension. Quoting his favorite 1980s slashers throughout, Aja’s execution is superlatively imaginative at defamiliarizing clichéd material, while maintaining a consistent tone of unremitting dread.

What begins as a quiet weekend away in the country with her college friend, Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco), turns into bloody catastrophe as a corpulent truck driver systematically disposes of Alex’s family before taking Alex hostage. Now, it’s up to Marie to save Alex…but is everything as it seems?

High Tension, while not entirely original and rather thin on plot, is meticulously directed, almost to the level of an art film, has three extended suspense set pieces guaranteed to frighten and horrify audience members, and successfully breathes life into a dying genre. It comes highly recommended for those who appreciate visceral cinema and horror movies, but I strongly caution those who are repelled by blood.

If for nothing else, High Tension is a superior achievement of sustained visual storytelling (there can’t be more than fifteen minutes of interspersed dialogue) and defines what film critic Pauline Kael used to refer to as "great trash".

For those not in the mood for De France’s bloody turn, these two delightful comedies featuring Miss De France provide wonderful alternatives: L’Auberge Espagnole (d. Cédric Klapisch, 2002) and Russian Dolls (d. Cédric Klapisch, 2005).

Dan Santelli is a senior at Temple University pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Film and Media Arts. A lifelong cineaste, his favorite films (in no particular order) include Leon: the Professional, The Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil, Blue Velvet, Brazil, Apocalypse Now, Dressed To Kill (1980), Halloween, and Les Yeux Sans Visage.

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