Posted January 25, 2012 by D. K. Holm
Thirty-five years ago, the Portland International Film Festivalwas born in a small then-new (now defunct) movie theater on SW Taylor, called, appropriately, the Movie House. This was formerly the Women’s Club, and the auditorium was at the top of a grand staircase and hidden behind two sets of double doors that annoyingly opened off to the sides of the screen. The lobby was wooden and rustic, and the popcorn was fresh and claimed to be coated in real melted butter. On a folding table in the lobby was a big crock of free Kaukauna Klub Cheese and some Ritz crackers. Ascending the creaking, carpeted stairs one found an additional lobby on the second floor, with wrought iron balconies and a whole lot of mis-matched wooden chairs and couches. Before each film someone did an introduction, standing before the screen, a brief 15 seconds of fame. Sometimes it was the aged overweight hippie who looked like Mr. Natural. Other times it was a small, intense brunette with a bad temper imported from Seattle, the home base of Seven Gables Cinemas, the operator of the Movie House. In fact, everyone who worked at the Movie House seemed to be in a bad mood. Nevertheless, in 1977 Seven Gables introduced the film festival to the city and showed, what, some 80 films. The third festival alone debuted films ranging from Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, Assault on Precinct 13, The Champ, and Pirosmani, to the cinematic record of Robert Vaughn’s one-man show F.D.R. A few years later the Northwest Film Study Center, as it was then known, took over the festival and has sponsored it ever since.
This year the festival boasts some 90 films to be shown at eight venues scattered around town. Among its most notable presentations this year is The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo, Belgium, 2011), the latest film from the Brothers Dardenne.
Typical of the Dardennes, the narrative is simple and begins – and ends – in media res. It concerns Cyril (Thomas Doret), who is confined to a foster home but looking for his father. In the course of his rambunctious search he bumps into a woman who helps him find his bike, which his father sold off after abandoning his son. The woman, Samantha (Cécile De France of Hereafter,High Tension, and Mesrine: Killer Instinct), who runs a small hair salon, agrees to take on the kid for weekends. They have a tense relationship as at first she helps him track down dad (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier) who wants nothing to do with him, and then bails him out of a crime he commits with a local troublemaker, also done in order to supply some cash to his dad. But woman and child’s idyllic time together after that is threatened when the victim of his crime seeks vengeance on Cyril.
This is perhaps one of the Dardennes’ most accessible films. As is typical of their films, it is a tale on the run. Though tempting, it is difficult to classify Kid with a Bike as an entry in what Sight and Sound magazine calls “slow cinema,” or the new contemplative international style in festival fare, because, like most of their central characters, Cyril is on the go, always rushing and never stopping to rest or ponder his actions. Here, though, his goal is simple (in previous films, the protagonists’ goals were as broad as survival in a depressed urban landscape in Rosetta, and as complex as involvement with the Russian mob, in Lorna’s Silence). The Dardennes’ camera keeps up with these characters, gliding smoothly around a cluttered, dirty, compressed, and chaotic cityscape.
The Dardennes come out of documentary filmmaking and their pictures tend to stand back and watch and let you decide on what emotions to feel. There is no music to cue you. There is little foregrounding and rarely resolution or climax to the tales. That would be the easy way out. This distancing can be distracting and disheartnening, and to understand the Dardennes’ viewpoint on their subjects requires a lot of reflection, a scrutiny of theirmise-en-scène, and research into their early docs and later features. That’s a lot of work for a film in a festival surrounded by 90 other works. Still, The Kid with a Bike’s accessibility – and its Oscar-worthy pairing of an adult with a child – at least provides some entrée in the Dardennes’ sensibility. Whether that sensibility has enough variety to warrant the attention it seems to demand would require a book to analyze.