The Kid With a Bike (Dardenne, 2011) and Footnote (Cedar, 2011)

Time to start doubling up again.  I’m about 15-20 films behind on this blog if I’m to keep my mission statement of writing about every film I see going.  These are two of the better films to be released last year.

Side note: I’m planning a few more scene analysis-type posts coming up, so the more straight-forward review format will have to suffice for now.

The Kid With a Bike:

The films by the brothers Dardenne are usually simply titled: The Promise, The Son, The Child, The Kid With a Bike.  This simplicity is echoed in their aesthetic, which features a handheld camera, unremarkable locations, and small casts.   Their plots are frequently driven by simple character choices.

Yet what the Dardennes seem to understand more than most filmmakers is that there is no such thing as only simplicity and that any decision or portrayal, no matter if young or old, if spontaneous or deliberate, is at once infinitesimally simple and universally complex.

Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret) is a temperamental orphan.  Abandoned by his father Guy (Jérémie Renier), Cyril lives unhappily in a state-run institution until Samantha (Cécile De France), a local hairdresser, unexpectedly decides to foster him on weekends.  When Cyril is coaxed into a petty, violent crime by the local drug dealer Wes (Egon Di Mateo) his actions have dire consequences.

The film is titled The Kid With a Bike because, as one might expect, Cyril has a bicycle.  What’s noteworthy about this is that the directors choose not to use it as a sign of social mobility, which every film since The Bicycle Thieves seems to do, but instead in its appropriate role.  Cyril has a bike because it’s fun and freeing to ride.  Not unlike a short sequence in their previous film, 2008’s Lorna’s Silence, the scenes featuring Cyril riding are electric and liberating.  Whether riding into trouble, from trouble, or simply to ride, the shots of Cyril on his bike are in sharp contrast to the tightly confined, claustrophobic interiors.

That Cyril spends a good portion of the film chasing after those who would steal his bicycle (in perhaps another sideways revision of the motif in the aforementioned Bicycle Thieves) is evidence of his understanding of the importance of his freedom.  Without the bike he’ll be relegated to moving at the speed of the rest of the world.  He’ll be as caged as in the orphanage.

The Dardennes employ interesting editing techniques throughout their filmography and this film is no exception.  Their preference is to either let things play out in near-real time, or to drastically alter the flow of events with a time cut that jumps suddenly forward, skipping over what, in another film, would be some very meaty drama.  There are two such time cuts in The Kid With a Bike, the first of which entirely bypasses Stephanie’s decision process to foster Cyril.  He asks her to do so, and suddenly he’s with her on a Saturday.  The edit simplifies a complex decision and circumvents traditional melodrama in favor of its redemptive arc.

This refusal to keep things black and white extends to the antagonists of the film.  There are villains in The Kid With a Bike, but the Dardennes do not wholly demonize any individual.  The two easy targets – Wes and Guy – both have saving qualities.  Wes lives with his grandmother and affectionately cares for her.  Guy has a consistent job and seems to have turned over a new leaf.

The Kid With a Bike is a morality film, but one without a moral.  Instead of preaching, the Dardennes prefer to let minute decisions ripple through the narrative, affecting all characters, major and supporting.   In taking Cyril in, Samantha breaks up with her boyfriend.  In perpetrating a crime, Cyril reshapes many relationships, including his with his own father.  These aren’t just basic cause-and-effect plot points, but rather something closer to the great Krzysztof Kieslowski’s worldview of the smallness and largeness of a vastly interconnected world.

Footnote:

A tale of two Shkolniks, Joseph Cedar’s perfectly paced and wryly observed dramatic-comedy follows father and son professors locked in a bitter rivalry. Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), the son, is well on the path to greatness.  A newly inducted member of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, renowned lecturer, and physically imposing figure, he’s the polar opposite of his father.  Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is taciturn, socially awkward, and consistently shunned for public recognition…until he receives word that he’s finally – after 20 years of rejection – been awarded a prestigious Israeli Prize.  The announcement brings plenty of past resentments to light.

Featuring dazzling montages that make great use of slide projectors, newspaper typography, photographs, and any other type of archival material imaginable, Footnote is very much about cataloging.  Where both men have devoted their lives to some sort of historicism, teaching, philology – ‘Talmudic research,’ as Uriel puts it – director Cedar is also interested in cataloging their disparate histories.

Uriel, fascinated by his father, follows in his footsteps, but soon overtakes him in prestige.  The son sees his father’s work – a lifelong endeavor on one single thesis – as belabored and paltry.  The father sees his son’s work as flippant and blind to true research.

The footnote in the film is literal.  Eliezer’s greatest achievement is having been listed as a footnote in his own professor and mentor’s influential book.  Of course the idea of the footnote extends metaphorically beyond the simple text: father and son have so diverged as to be mere footnotes in one-another’s lives.

And what to make of the women in Footnote?  Eliezer’s wife, Yehudit (Aliza Rosen) sleepwalks through the film.  She overhears her husband give a particularly vitriolic interview but pretends not to.  Uriel lets her in on a potentially devastating secret, but she does nothing with it.  Uriel’s wife Dikla (Alma Zack) has more of a voice than her mother-in-law, but is still relegated to the fringe of the narrative.  “Your only job in this house is mother, and you dump that on me,” Uriel tells her.

Neither woman influences the plot in any meaningful way, though both are featured visually in key moments: Yehudit is one of the first faces on-screen and Dikla is one of the last, when Uriel takes her hand in a gesture of solidarity.  Rather than a misogynistic reading, the women have simply been forced to the background.  They, particularly Yehudit, suffer in silence, footnotes in their respective husband’s lives.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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