With the big-budget film John Carter crashing at the box office, and The Hunger Games heading in exactly the opposite direction to record-breaker status, I headed -- more like escaped -- to the local art-house cinema last weekend to see something on an entirely smaller scale. The film I saw, The Kid With a Bike, was by the Belgian directors -- and brothers -- Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Their film is a model of economic, almost severe, but extremely powerful storytelling and I was deeply moved by it. I was also struck by its incredibly spare use of music of any kind -- just a few floating measures of a single phrase from the slow movement of Beethoven's noble "Emperor" Concerto (the last of the composer's five piano concertos).
At the center of the film is a wild but extremely smart and extraordinarily determined 11-year-old boy who has been abandoned by his father. The plot involves his painful, almost disastrous search to find his father, and when reunion with him seems impossible, at least a suitable father figure. With so few connections to his absent parent, the boy is determined to find and keep the bike that his father has given him. It is a symbol, but it is also the one way that Cyril -- played by the remarkable young actor Thomas Doret -- can take flight from the troubled world he finds himself in. As fate would have it, he crosses paths with a young, attractive hairdresser named Samantha -- appealingly played by Cécile De France -- who takes an almost mysterious interest in the boy. Apparently unsatisfied by her own experiences with relationships, the woman takes the young boy on as if he were her own, but he fights her and kicks up several storms along the way as the possibility of a new life together hesitantly takes shape. Their dual fates are in question until the very end of the film, when a violent act undertaken by the boy threatens to sink him -- and their barely-rooted relationship -- entirely.
Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen in the world of film, but this one, with its fine acting and unobtrusive direction, packs a considerable punch. The simplicity of the story, its unsentimental view of how life rains its hardships even on the most vulnerable children, and its depiction of the transcendent power of love, create many heart-tugging, even heartbreaking moments, but there's no maudlin emotion here.
Which brings me to the remarkable soundtrack to the film: there's simply very little of it. Apparently the Dardennes brothers tend to avoid using much music in their films. Here, in The Kid with A Bike, they use, as mentioned above, a scant few measures of the sublime "Adagio" from Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto. Although I found myself wanting to hear more of this quietly rapturous music, I can understand why the directors let those unresolved chords hover above the visuals. At key moments in the plot, the return of this same musical snippet heightens the tension of the drama and creates an atmosphere of beauty mixed with ominous uncertainty. The phrase "less is more" has rarely been illustrated to greater effect than the Dardennes brothers' enlistment of Beethoven.
During the closing credits, you finally hear Beethoven's beautiful "Adagio" unfurl in its entirety, and what a quietly glorious sensation it creates -- like water in a stopped-up stream that has finally begun to flow. I noticed other music credits, but couldn't remember hearing anything other than the Beethoven. As to the concerto performance used in the film, it was the great Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel with the London Philharmonic.
Beethoven had a complex relationship with his young nephew Karl, whom the composer fought to have removed from the custody of his sister-in-law Johanna after the death of Beethoven's brother Carl. Beethoven considered Johanna an unfit mother, and he wanted to raise his nephew himself (in the film, Cyril's struggling father seems more unwilling than unfit, but perhaps that's too generous a distinction to make). Beethoven's longing for the son he never had is something of a mirror image to Cyril's quest to know and be loved by his own father. I wonder if the Dardennes brothers made this connection when they selected the music? Regardless, it works.