Belgian directors and brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne may not be household names, but they are no strangers to awards, especially at the Cannes Film Festival. They’ve won the Palm d’Or twice (in 1999 for Rosetta and 2005 for The Child), and took home the Grand Jury Prize this past year for their latest film, The Kid With A Bike, a searingly unsentimental portrait of a boy (Thomas Doret) who’s abandoned by his father (Jérémie Renier) and taken in by a hairdresser (Cécile De France) out of a random act of kindness that develops into a maternal bond. The A.V. Club spoke with the Dardennes last fall when the film (which opens in New York and L.A. on Friday) screened at the New York Film Festival to talk about the origin of the story, their lengthy rehearsal process, and how they keep sentimentality at bay.
The A.V. Club: What was the origin of the screenplay for The Kid With A Bike?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: This all started with a story we heard when we were in Japan in 2002. We were promoting our movie, The Son, and a judge told us a story about a boy who had been left in an orphanage when he was a child. His father was supposed to come and retrieve him, and he never did. He just waited for him. That was the departure for our screenplay. We talked a lot about this boy who had been abandoned by his father and who waited years and years for him to come back.
Luc Dardenne: In fact, we talked about it a lot, but we were never able to write a screenplay starting from this story. It never really satisfied us. It’s when we brought back another screenplay with a character we were having trouble developing, a woman who was a doctor. We incorporated her into our Japanese story, and we changed her into a hairdresser. It allowed us to tell this story—we didn’t just want to tell a story about abandonment—it allowed us to tell a story about how a child like this could actually be saved.
AVC: The reason why the hairdresser, Samantha, takes in the boy, Cyril, isn’t quite clear, but she seems comfortable taking on the maternal role. Is this to show that the bonds of family are more intangible than a blood connection?
JPD: Well, of course, there is that. We felt that the scene that takes place in the doctor’s office where the boy grabs her, and there’s a strong visceral connection that’s made there, was enough of a reason to make a connection between them. The reasons that Samantha does it? Well, we didn’t want the viewer to be in front of a psychological study where we would say she lost a child when she was younger or she can’t have children and that explains it. We didn’t want those kinds of reasons to be in the mind of the spectator.
LD: We wanted an element of surprise in there, where the viewer doesn’t necessarily understand it, but in the final analysis says, “Okay, she did it, and it’s probably a good thing she did it in the end.” I think that Samantha herself is surprised. When the kid grabs her and takes her in his arms and she falls on the ground, she’s surprised by the power of her response and that leads to the next thing.
AVC: He obviously needs her, but it seems there’s a void in her that’s filled as well. How did you explore that as you were creating this character?
JPD: Yes, he does complete her. What we wanted to do was have there be a strong physical connection between them. The first was in the doctor’s office, the second in the car, and third is following when he went to try to give money to his father, and he comes back, and Samantha runs her fingers through his hair. In movies, one translates emotional characteristics through physicality. That’s what we wanted to do in our film. We wanted to translate through physicality.
AVC: It’s a striking image when Cyril’s father turns him away, and doubly so knowing that it’s Thomas Doret’s first film. What was the process like working with such a young actor?
LD: We worked with him almost how we work with all actors, in the sense that, before we start shooting, we take about a month to a month-and-a-half for rehearsal. With Thomas, we started with all the physical things: the fight scenes with the gang members and with Samantha. That’s little by little how I feel he came to meet the character of Cyril. Let’s not forget that he’s a child who’s never acted before, and so there’s a lot of things we feel for him. He’s very free.
AVC: The images of him pedaling through the streets of Seraing are particularly powerful. Did you have them in mind from the beginning, or did the motif evolve throughout filming?
JPD: They were always in the script. The shot of him on the bike, or when his father makes him jump over the wall and then he pedals for a really long time, I think in those movements the viewers see the thought process of a spirit and a soul. It’s in those moments really that Cyril accepts the abandonment by his father, and he is propelled toward Samantha. It’s very hard for him to give up this illusion of being loved by his father, and he has to give that up.
AVC: Was the physicality of the role challenging for Doret?
JPD: No, except for the scene in the medical office where he has to wrap his arms around Samantha. It’s simply because, for a child who’s 13, it’s hard for him to wrap his arms around a woman. That’s why the rehearsals of the fight scenes with Samantha helped a lot. It’s always much easier to begin there.
AVC: What was the most surprising thing for you throughout rehearsals? Did the script change during that period?
LD: There are two scenes that changed. The one in the medical office, the first time we did it, she didn’t fall on the ground. We found that throughout the rehearsal process. And also the scene where his father rejects him and makes him go over the wall and Samantha adopts him, it used to happen inside the hairdressing salon, and he would fall into Samantha’s arms. It just seemed too sentimental to us. We felt that we had to create more tension and distance between them, so we put the scene outside with Samantha inside and Cyril on the outside. Then they find each other, and it’s Samantha who takes the first step towards him and says, “Kiss me.” That was different than how we initially conceived of him, where he went toward her. Here, she’s the one that takes the first step toward him, so to speak. She’s taking on the role of the mother, and really, the father as well.
AVC: This kind of story could easily become sentimental, but you seem to make a specific effort to keep that from happening. Were there particular characters or situations that you paid attention to in this respect?
JPD: That sentimentality could be caused by Samantha, so we just needed, from the get-go, for her not to fall into stereotypes of the mother. She needed to be attentive toward Cyril but at the same time holding back a little bit. She just needed to not be all open arms immediately with tears running down her face, and us not to use music to reinforce that side of it.
AVC: What were your musical decisions based on?
JPD: The music doesn’t come out of the action or what’s going on with the character. One could say that the music is above the film. What’s missing for Cyril is the comfort or consolation that this boy needs. Samantha is the one who is going to bring this to Cyril. We can say that when the music comes up at the end of the movie, when he’s bicycling to go to Samantha’s for the barbecue, that it’s allowing that element to come into his life.
AVC: How has making The Kid With A Bike differed from your past films?
LD: It’s difficult to put your children into different categories or drawers. We shot during the summer, which we’ve never done before, and there’s the music. For the first time, we were working with an actress [De France] who’s very well-known, and that was a challenge for us.
AVC: How so?
LD: Well, the challenge is that she had to become part of our family. She had to enter our universe, so we didn’t have the feeling that it was a star who had other actors who were sort of orbiting around her. In a way, it was good that in the first scene with her she fell on the ground with the child. Through the camera, you see parts of her from different angles and pieces, but it’s not, “Enter on scene the great star.” And Cécile was absolutely fantastic. She didn’t ask us a lot of questions about the character. She just fit right in. She was just like any of our other actors. Of course, there’s the other aspect, which is the viewer. We were hoping that by taking an actress like Cécile it would help us have more play with a larger public.
JPD: Aside from that, we always love to work with people we’ve worked with before, like Jérémie Reiner and Fabrizio Rongione. We like it not just because it’s a routine or because we’re used to it. There’s a level of trust that’s been established by working with each other through several movies that gives us a greater breadth of freedom.