There are some very consistently distinctive things about the Dardenne brothers’ films. They are about recognisably ‘ordinary’ working-class people; they are usually about inter-generational relationships; they deal with ethical (and psychological) issues in such a way that people often describe them, rightly or wrongly, as somehow concerned with ‘redemption’; they fall, for all their apparent documentary-like naturalism, into three fairly clear ‘acts’; and – perhaps most distinctive of all – they often feel, for one reason or another, a little… well, unremarkable for the first 20 minutes or so. Then something happens which makes you realise you’re watching something very special indeed.
All of which is true of their fifth film in the main Cannes competition (which follows two Palme d’or-winners and two other recipients of major awards). It’s not as if the situation here is exactly original: a troubled 12-year-old, reluctantly living in a home since his father abandoned him without leaving any forwarding details (let alone the titular promised bicycle), meets and is shown sympathy and understanding by a hairdresser, who finds herself having to deal not only with the kid’s own capacity for violence but with the temptations put in his way by a local gangleader. To anyone familiar with the Dardennes’ relatively small but very substantial body of work, this might sound as if it’s going over old ground – and maybe it is, but it’s still producing fresh and extremely fruitful results.
Partly, that’s down to performance. Besides such Dardenne regulars as Jérémie Renier and (admittedly in a small role) Olivier Gourmet, the film boasts wonderful work by Cécile de France (recently seen in Eastwood’s ‘Hereafter’) as the protagonist’s unexpected but altogether plausible protectress, and by Thomas Doret as young Cyril. Still, it would be wrong to attribute the excellence of the Belgian brothers’ film simply to a form of well-acted Loachian ‘realism’.
The marvellously nimble, fleet pace perfectly suits the adolescent, often desperate energy of Cyril’s search for stability, while once more the narrative embraces both naturalism and something more mythic, even Biblical; this, after all, is a tale of crime and punishment, longing and disappointment, love, hatred and forgiveness. But in the end it’s probably best to forget such contextual stuff, as the film is primarily about people. See the sheer fear on Renier’s face as his character confesses that he just can’t cope any longer with looking after his own son. At this point, about half an hour into the story, the power, subtlety, enduring relevance and absolute truthfulness of the Dardennes’ latest immediately become brilliantly clear.