London Film Festival 2011 – Day 14

The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, 2011)

Sunshine! Beethoven! Cécile de France!

Every time a new Dardenne Brothers film surfaces (always at Cannes), the first thing many reviewers feel compelled to note is how it differs from its predecessors. With The Silence of Lorna it was the relatively involved, propulsive plot: with this new film, it’s the presence of a celebrity actress, and the fact that we don’t spend most of it trudging in lockstep behind the protagonist, staring at the back of their head, which is scantily illuminated by a sky of unrelieved Belgian concrete, soundtracked only by the rush and roar of oblivious passing cars. The instinct to discriminate based on relatively superficial variations is understandable when the Dardenne Brothers have amassed such a significant body of work that is remarkable (among other reasons) for how consistent it is in tone, shape and concerns.

So yes, the obvious thing to say about The Kid With a Bike is that – notwithstanding the sunshine, the Beethoven and Cécile de France – it is another Dardenne Brothers film, and that if you already know you like them, you’ll probably like this. The shame is that more people don’t already know and love these emotionally direct, accessible, unpretentious films.

The title and setup are an obvious reference to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and 11 year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret, yet another unknown child actor giving a remarkable performance of utter assurance and naturalism in a Dardenne Brothers film) does indeed have his bike repeatedly stolen from him, but there’s a twist, in that there’s no father-son relationship here – Cyril’s father (Dardennes veteran Jérémie Renier) has abandoned him to social care for what appear to be entirely voluntary and selfish reasons (the mother is already out of the picture when we come in). Bluntly, he just doesn’t give a shit about his son, which he tries to make as clear as he can to the kid whenever he’s tracked down.

Naturally, Cyril is a difficult child. From the very first scene of the film, we see him lashing out, squirming away from his carers, always wanting just to get on his bike and pedal furiously – and we follow him in long, breathless tracking shots that make it feel almost as if he’s trying to fight his way out of the film, to get away from us. His headlong rush delivers him, literally, into the arms of de France’s Samantha, a hairdresser who lives in the building his father most recently did a runner from and, for no given reason, he takes up with her, clinging desperately to the idea that she might love him enough to fix him, even when, later on, he shows every sign of going badly off the rails (catching the eye of a local smalltime crook who needs a kid stooge), and throwing her kindness back in her face.

That refusal to give reasons is probably the biggest sticking point for anyone coming to this film without previous experience of the Dardennes. But despite their reputation as masters of grimy social realism, their films have always had a complicated relationship with reality – there’s a fairy-tale simplicity to their narratives, which at its best can give the films the quality of myths or parables, they aren’t shy of deliberate anti-realist moves such as huge, disorienting narrative ellipses (Cyril asks if Samantha can foster him at weekends: the next scene is of Cyril in Samantha’s home), and they always privilege their actors’ portrayals of the broad strokes and nuances of the characters’ emotional states over scripted psychological detail (these films happen in the moment, not in the backstory). For their fans, like me, their methods bear fruit again and again, and it makes their craft an echo of their art: when you start to feel for one of their – by conventional standards opaque – protagonists, you’ve made the same journey to empathy that they make their characters take. At the times when it seems Samantha might be able to fix Cyril, The Kid With a Bike is a film that can fleetingly make you feel that love alone can be enough. — Indy Datta

The Jewel (Andrea Molaioli 2011)

The Jewel is fairly closely based on the Parmalat fraud case, which writer/director Andrea Molaioli meticulously researched when he started on this project many years ago, when the scandal was in its infancy. Before the screening he explained that when Parmalat, an Italian-based dairy multinational, found itself in severe financial difficulties it raised funds by issuing bonds based on faked valuations. The bonds were brought by small investors, who then took big hits when the deception was discovered and Parmalat crumbled after the arrest of its board.

Even without the Parmalat background, this works as a corporate drama in its own right. It’s Molaioli’s second feature after the well received The Girl by the Lake (2007), and he has a background as an assistant director, including working with Nanni Moretti, although the only thing The Jewel has in common with Moretti’s work is its unpicking and laying bare of Italy’s dark underbelly, hidden beneath its bella figura. Toni Servillo, as the prickly, austere chief financial officer holds The Jewel together masterfully.

In the Q&A the audience were astute enough to ask about parallels with Italy’s current situation. Molaioli didn’t get into the politics, but talked about, although didn’t name, the financial backers who withdrew their money from his film suddenly, with no reason given. — Susan Patterson

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (Werner Herzog, 2011)

Werner Herzog is rightfully revered for his fiction films, but for me, he’s a documentary maker first and foremost. His latest documentary, Into the Abyss, may not have the dense layers of Grizzly Man, or the razor-sharp focus of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, or the beauty of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but it’s still a welcome addition to his canon, and a surprisingly heartfelt statement against capital punishment.

Focusing on one triple murder case and the devastating effect it had on those left behind, Herzog interviews the two perpetrators, one on death row and one sentenced to forty years, as well as their families and the families of the victims, trying to show us that no matter how devastating a crime can be, there should still be opportunity for reform. Herzog has always been a leading interviewer, but he’s never been as transparently so as here, consciously trying to draw the most emotion-filled statements out of his subjects, even going as far as making them hold up photos of their loved ones as they talk about them. This doesn’t hurt the film too much – he still takes care to give equal time to those who find catharsis and justice in the death sentence – but it does give it a curiously direct tone for a director that’s usually so interested in artifice and abstraction.

In the end, though, Into the Abyss doesn’t make much of an impression until its final closing moments, when his interviewees speak directly about capital punishment, some of them movingly unaware of the profundity of their words. It’s not so much angry and polemical as it is sad and reflective, displaying Herzog’s talent for tapping directly into our humanity. It may not be one of his best films, but it’s certainly one of his most compassionate. — Adam Howard

Anonymous (Roland Emmerich, 2011)

If you’ve always wanted to see Roland Emmerich make a film about the life of one of the world’s greatest artists, then, hey, Anonymous is the film for you! If you’ve felt that he has previously shown the level of emotional interest in his characters that means he should probably stick to blowing things up, then prepare to be proven right. This is a torpid, flat, listless period drama, which plays like Shakespeare in Love’s malevolent, idiot brother.

Regardless of your opinion of the film’s central thesis – Shakespeare = idiot, fraud, bumbling Russell Brand-alike – I would find it hard to imagine that anyone could defend it against accusations of being crushingly boring.

Emmerich’s never exactly been an actor’s director, and here we see performances that are widely varied in pitch – Rhys Ifans is seemingly in a different film to Rafe Spall, while only Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave (both playing Elizabeth I) come out of the film with any credit. This is Emmerich’s long-cherished passion project, but it feels like a cheap Carry-On knock-off. — “Ron Swanson

1 thought on “London Film Festival 2011 – Day 14

  1. Really looking forward to Kid with a Bike – L’Enfant is the only Dardennes film I’ve seen and I absolutely loved it (as do the makers of Wateloo Road, who stole a sequence shot for shot a few years back). I’m also oddly haunted by the idea of Anonymous.

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