The Kid with the Bike (Le Gamin au Velo) Jean Pierre et Luc Dardennes (2011 Be. Fr) Cecile de France; Thomas Doret
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 5 April 2011; ticket price: £7:95
Bad child archetype: what’s locked up in our heads
The de-industrialised zones of Belgium have spawned their own recent depressing history of serial child abuse. It is possible to caricature the place as a smashed landscape of twisted sexual desire, a carnal parody of the dominant consumer culture that sates its appetite on the flesh of its children.
Of course it’s probably no different from anywhere else in Europe.
The Dardennes’ Rosetta (1999) seemed to me a philosophically walled off world. Its eponymous heroine was trapped in the mechanical process of a scenario that seemed to have been created in order to show the role of deterministic principles in the playing out of fate. The idea of freewill in Rosetta’s situation was demoted to some sort of fanciful propagation of the ivory tower. After Rosetta something changes in the outlook of the brothers. Perhaps some consideration of the serial crimes of Marc Dutroux sensitised the Dardennes Freres (DF) to look again at the underlying philosophical direction of their scripts and the relationship of their scenarios to the fate of their child subjects, particularly from the underprivileged areas where they choose to locate their films. The determinist notion leads only to darkness. With children there needs to be at least the notion that there is the possibility of avoiding complete blackout.
With their next two films, Le Fils and L’Enfant, the collective Dardennes’ philosophy of mind has moved on. In particular Le Fils has at it centre an exploring of the idea of free will. Focusing on Oliver the protagonist and carpentry instructor at a training centre, the film is a subtle probing from without of his state of being as he struggles to make a series of critical decisions. The viewer doesn’t have access to Olivier’s state of mind, that has to be inferred or more correctly interpreted, from the signs given out by him in the film. DF don’t engage the audience with certainties only with possibilities. The characteristic feature of Le Fils is that we are in Olivier’s world; it is in his world that the film is set and develops.
In contrast KB seems to have too many worlds competing for attention.
The signs and wonders that constitute the opening section KB indicate that we are in situations where there is the possibility of free will, where the players decisions shape and change the course and outcome of events. However in KB there are a number of significant worlds put into play, which crowd each other and engender confusion. The world of the kid, Cecil dominated by the absence of his father, the world of Samantha, which is in fact two worlds a personal one and professional one as the owner of a hair styling salon, the world of the gang, and the world of the community where the action takes place. All these vie for primacy. DF might contend that life is like this; a myriad of worlds surround and confuse us; but I think this would be a weak defence of the film’s structure.
Film is not real life, or rather it is like ‘real’ life in that it is selective and the ‘real’ is accessed through one operating mind or consciousness. Consciousness of another we can observe but never penetrate, a fact the Dardennes use as the basis for their film practice As in Le Fils where the fulcrum is Olivier, so in KB the fulcrum appears to be Samantha, the small business woman who fosters Cecil. But her operations and capacity to inform us an emitter of signs, is simply crowded out by a scenario that is more interested in following the mechanics of a script which is driven by the idea of the gang and a botched violent robbery (the which is not very credible). In Le Fils as we follow Olivier there is the possibility of understanding his decisions and actions, which sustains the life of the film. In contrast when Samantha is ‘followed’ in the scenario, she is immediately blocked off or taken off stage by different events. The consequence is that KB loses the possibility of a deepening and operates only in the shallow waters of affect signs, rather than in the deeper zones of actions and gestes. Too much happens without anything being revealed. Although Samantha’s outer behaviour suggests an underlying free will, as the film progresses, in the confusion of competing worlds, she diminishes rather than increases as an intensity, and the film dwindles into an inconsequentiality.
Le Fils was characterised by a distinct visual style that incorporated in its look, the paucity of the environments: the training centre, the bachelor apartment. Everything looked sparse rather bleak, worlds that offer no encouragement to the soul. The film’s visual look is an important part of its story. KB in contrast lacks the complement of a strong visual statement: it looks like any other product originated on 35mm film and screened on HD. There is little to detain or attract the eye everything is big and clear and in a way uninteresting. For a film whose intention appears to have been to engage the viewer as a seer, the visuals are counter productive, acting as a barrier to rather than a gateway for the eye to enter. The film is composed using shots of long duration, but that’s not unusual these days, so the film looks like everything else, when in fact it certainly intends not to be like everything else.
I think if DF continue to produce films, built about the nodal points of their socio-philosophical interests, they will have to attend to the business of film makers in making their productions visual filmic quality relate to the content.
KB and Le Fils share a certain mirror symmetry from the point of view of the male and female relationship with the bad child. Both titles imply that the subject of the films is a child. In fact in both films, the male children are devices that infiltrate the adult psyche. The adults are the subjects. The children in this sense are not so much actual; rather they are archetypes. They are archetypes that play complex functions in the inner life and movement of the two adults. The incorporation of the bad child or rejected child into the psychic life, implies a process of development completion and healing of the wounded soul.
These ideas complete the cycle of this piece of writing which began commenting on the spectacle of Western culture’s sexual abuse of children, whether real or imagined. In their films DF point to the deep resonance of the bad child archetype within the adult soul, as potential healing force. This function is clearer in Le Fils than in KB, but is the underpinning strength of their recent work.