With no clear favorite having yet emerged from this year’s Competition slate—We Need to Talk About Kevin probably comes closest so far, but even it has managed only an anemic 2.5 average (out of four) in Screen’s international critics’ poll—hopes were unusually high for The Kid With a Bike, the latest from two-time Palme d’Or winners Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne. And the new film wastes no time in calling to mind one of those past triumphs, as its title character, played by 13-year-old newcomer Thomas Doret, arguably proves to be more single-minded, self-reliant and quasi-feral than even Rosetta. Rather than looking for a job, however, young Cyril — sadly bikeless as the movie begins, though that will change — is determined to track down his deadbeat dad (Dardennes perennial Jérémie Renier), who’s discarded the kid at an orphanage (or some equivalent) and moved away, changing his phone number and leaving no forwarding address. A chance encounter with a maternally-minded hairdresser (Cécile de France, blending self-effacingly into a cast of mostly non-pros) leads to a new arrangement in which Cyril spends his weekends with her, but the absence of a paternal figure makes him easy prey for a local teenage criminal (Egon Di Mateo), who flatters this vulnerable bundle of rage and raw nerves with cries of “respect!” and the nickname “Pitbull.”
The tough-minded, engrossing exploration of love and remorse that follows is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the Dardennes, who since their breakthrough with La Promesse in 1996 seem constitutionally incapable of making a bad or even mediocre movie. Lorna’s Silence, which premiered here three years ago, was widely considered one of their weaker efforts; even if you agree with that assessment, though (I do not), it was clearly a tentative step in a new direction for the brothers, concluding in a literal and metaphorical wilderness that felt dangerously unexplored. The Kid With a Bike, by contrast, is very much in their wheelhouse, recalling bits and pieces of not just Rosetta but also La Promesse, The Son and L’Enfant (The Child). Obviously, there are worse films to resemble, and I remain in awe of the Dardennes’ willingness to commit wholeheartedly to dislikable protagonists — Cyril is a sullen, selfish, almost maniacal little runt, with a cuteness quotient of zero. All in all, this is my favorite Competition film so far. Ultimately, though, it’s just too familiar to feel truly exciting. Grade: B
My least favorite Competition film so far also suffers from overfamiliarity—in this case, not of director Markus Schleinzer’s previous work (it’s his first film, after years as a casting director for fellow Austrian Michael Haneke and others), but of a certain festival-approved style of clinical detachment, especially as applied to controversial or disturbing subject matter. Michael observes a few humdrum months in the life of a weedy-looking white-collar drone by that name (Michael Fuith), who, we quickly discover, has a 10-year-old boy (David Rauchenberger) locked in his soundproofed basement. We watch the two of them eat dinner, clean the bathroom, watch TV (ongoing rape is strongly implied but never depicted); we wonder how the kid is getting along in his dungeon while Michael goes on a skiing trip with an inexplicable group of friends (real-life sociopaths of this kind tend to be complete loners). Schleinzer makes his intention plain early on, devising a dramatic narrative incident that leads absolutely nowhere; there will be no conventional “developments” here, just a dispassionate portrait of the banality of evil. For my money, a little such banality goes a long way — not because it’s dull (it isn’t), but because, in a strange way, it’s easy, even timid — a means of shocking by refusing to shock, if that makes any sense. Still, it’s hugely preferable to the repugnant tack Schleinzer takes in the film’s lengthy epilogue, during which he begins actively and sadistically fucking with the audience, as if chastising us for our natural compassion. That was the point at which my neutral indifference (sole exception: a riveting scene in which Michael goes “shopping” for another boy at a drag race) shaded into outright hatred. Grade: C-
Now that I think about it, “familiarity” sums up this entire day at Cannes, as the third film I saw, Liza Johnson’s Return, struggles—with considerable success—to find something fresh to say about the restless discontent of the American soldier newly arrived home from the front. (It’s screening in the Directors’ Fortnight, which is technically a separate festival taking place half a mile down the Croisette, but tends to be treated, like its cousin Critics’ Week, as if it were part of Cannes proper.) Linda Cardellini, so memorably vulnerable as Lindsay on Freaks and Geeks, gives a terrific, flinty performance as Kelli, who picks up her old life with her husband (Michael Shannon, playing it normal for a change and acquitting himself well) and kids and goes back to her previous job as a factory worker, but finds it nearly impossible to adjust to mundane reality, even as she repeatedly insists that nothing especially traumatic happened to her in Iraq. (“A lot of people had it a lot worse” is her mantra when questioned.) This particular scenario has been kicking around since at least The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 (I’m sure there were WWI examples as well, just can’t think of any offhand), and it’s not easy to find an acre that hasn’t been pretty well plowed already. But Johnson, making her feature debut following a number of acclaimed shorts, demonstrates a firm and steady hand, as well as an admirable disinclination to spell out the precise nature of Kelli’s unhappiness, letting Cardellini’s expressive features do most of the work. The film’s circular ending struck me as a bit too tidy, and Mad Men’s John Slattery, while quite funny, doesn’t entirely convince as a good ol’ boy with whom Kelli bonds at an AA meeting. But Return is precisely the sort of promising first effort that festival sidebars were created to showcase. Grade: B-
Tomorrow: Two major films from this year’s Sundance fest, Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene, are also playing at Cannes; since I didn’t make it to Park City, I’ll be catching up with them here to see whether I agree with Noel Murray, who really liked ‘em both. Also, The Artist, a French-made tribute to silent cinema with John Goodman and James Cromwell in supporting roles.