Yet when films like Rosetta, The Son and La Promesse hurtle through housing projects or mobile homes using hand-held cameras, they have such engrossing, reckless energy that they can feel more like noir-ish thrillers.
Now, with The Kid With A Bike, they literally zoom into the light – the Dardennes usually shoot in Seraing in Liège, the gritty part of Belgium, either indoors, or during the grey winter months. Yet it’s not just sunshine that makes this their warmest movie to date, winning the 2011 Grand Prix at Cannes.
Cyril, 11, is a ginger-headed handful who refuses to accept that he has been abandoned by his deadbeat dad. Instead he obsessively searches for his father and his bike. Breaking out of the orphanage, he runs away to the flat where he used to live, and when the authorities try to take him back, he hides in a doctor’s office and clings to the legs of a hairdresser (Cécile de France). “You can hold on to me, but not so tight,” she tells him, setting the tone for their unlikely friendship. Samantha agrees to be his part-time guardian, letting him stay with her at weekends. She also retrieves the bike that his feckless father sold on.
There’s already one famous film about children and beloved bicycles, of course – Vittorio De Sica’s naturalist classic The Bicycle Thief – and like De Sica, the Dardennes are fascinated by those with unloved, unattended lives.
Their central characters are flawed, and often do awful things, but the Dardennnes’ world view is entirely practical. If they repent, their reward isn’t so much spiritual as access to a useful set of new possibilities. Nor do they make a saviour’s lot look attractive in their films. Usually the job is onerous, complicated and unappreciated: for instance, the attention Samantha gives to Cyril is resented by her boyfriend, and while Cyril forms a tentative bond to Samantha, he’s attracted to another option – a young delinquent (Egon Di Mateo) who shows him how to mug people.
Cyril’s dad (Jérémie Renier) is neither interested in repentance nor in helping Cyril: “It’s too much for me,” he says. Although we don’t hear the father’s story, in a sense it’s been sketched out in earlier Dardennes films, where the same actor played a kid with a rotten dad in La Promesse (1996) and then a fraught father himself in L’Enfant (2006). In another auteur’s book, this might seem like an act of self-homage. For the Dardenne brothers, it’s simply another way of suggesting that family dysfunction is an unresolved cycle.
The Kid With A Bike (12A)
Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Running time: 87 minutes
• Filmhouse, Edinburgh, and Glasgow Film Theatre, from Friday