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For Your Consideration: 'The Kid with a Bike'

Le gamin au vélo, directed and written by the Belgian brother team of Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, was screened at last year's Cannes Festival Film to wide acclaim, including winning the Grand Jury Prize. It came to the E Street Cinema for a few weeks earlier this spring, but those of us who missed it had one more chance to see it last night, a single screening organized for the La Cinémathèque series by La Maison Française at The Avalon in Chevy Chase. The screenplay takes place in the usual place for the Dardennes, the rough-and-tumble cités of Wallonie, with a boy abandoned in an orphanage by his deadbeat father, making for obvious comparison to the classic Les 400 Coups. Cyril, played with earnest, skinny candor by Thomas Doret in a remarkable debut, refuses to believe that his father has abandoned him or disappeared without at least dropping his bike at the home for him. He fights tooth and nail to locate his father, and along the way involves a well-meaning hairdresser from the town, Samantha, played with open-faced but still complex love by Cécile De France (Fauteuils d'orchestre), who accepts the boy's request to foster him on the weekends.

Samantha's motivations are never explained, nor do they need to be. We learn nothing about her parents and see only that she has no children of her own and is not in a serious relationship where a child might be a possibility. She knows the risks to a parent-less child in her poor neighborhood, fighting with all her might to keep Cyril away from a local ruffian (Egon Di Mateo) who befriends Cyril in an attempt to pull him into his illegal schemes. (Much of the film is shot in the town of Seraing, near Liège, where the Dardenne brothers themselves grew up, in a Catholic family.) In lesser hands, the movie could have turned into a simple good heart saves bad kid sort of story, but it does not. Fostering a child who has undergone this sort of emotional trauma is not easy, and Samantha takes her share of licks in trying to sort Cyril out right. We do not really know, as children, how much pain we can cause those who love us, but we have the chance to learn, if we are lucky, just how much children need our understanding, especially when they are the most difficult. It is not really even possible to hate Cyril's father, Guy (Jérémie Renier), even though he has done nothing but ill turns to his own son.

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One of the most effective parts of the film is a minor detail in the soundtrack, a little motto of warm strings, excerpted from the slow movement ("Adagio un poco mosso," measures 7 to 10) of Beethoven's fifth piano concerto (op. 73, "Emperor"), that is repeated at several crucial points throughout. (The performance is a recording made by Alfred Brendel with the London Philharmonic, Bernard Haitink conducting.) This series of simple chords, in radiant B major, stops short at a very unresolved point full of longing, surging toward the entrance of the piano solo, not to be heard until the credits roll. It is the only sign that the filmmakers give, perhaps, that Cyril is going to be alright. At least, thanks to Beethoven, one is free to hope.

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