On Sunday night I went to see Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s new film Le gamin au vélo (The Kid with a Bike) in Cambridge. Luc Dardenne was there to discuss the film and answer questions; I tried to surreptitiously record the sound of some of the discussion, but now I regret being so discreet, first of all because I probably would have seen that the device shorted out early on in the discussion, hence why I only have eleven minutes out of a forty minute talk. But also because of the totally fucked up sexual politics implicit in the choreography of the discussion: Dardenne and a male interviewer sitting on bright red leather armchairs, while Dardenne’s female translator was made to sit on the ground next to Dardenne, literally at his feet. I thought I was going to have a rage blackout. There was plenty of time during the Q&A, someone couldn’t have found a chair, a stool for her, so she wasn’t kneeling at the master’s feet? Why didn’t she insist on it? Translation politics are so often gendered, too, aren’t they; the female mouthpieces for Great Men. The woman as filter. Next to me was a young woman who literally was leaning so far forward (the better to hear him with) I actually thought she’d fall over at some point: chin in hands, gazing adoringly and laughing delightedly at every joke, however minor. All the female adoration for male genius was driving me up the wall. And I like the films of the Dardenne brothers! Luc Dardenne himself did, at least, have the decency to look very embarrassed and uncomfortable by the situation, the placement of the translator.
In any case, believe me, I have learned to not expect any semblance of gender equality in Cambridge, or frankly, anywhere in England, as living here has revealed that the English brand of sexism is a pathological sort, a deep, deep neurosis; that throughout the culture there is a serious alienation from and revulsion of female life in all its aspects. (Okay, maybe that’s not uniquely English, writing it out like that, I know it’s wider than that.) So much also because English culture is so founded on its homosocial patriarchal class structure, with men (usually privileged; and if not privileged, then bonded because not privileged; and if from different backgrounds, then bonded because mutual opening of eyes to each other’s lives, etc., servant and master meeting each other as naked in their humanity, okay, okay)–loving each other, helping each other, protecting each other, eternally bonded to each other. At some point I have to write a really long essay about the TV show Sherlock, the Guy Ritchie Sherlock films, the show Merlin, probably others as well–all about how the mainstream has unqueered homoeroticism, how the language and signs of homoromantic subtext have all been absorbed to reinforce our continued worship of, valuing of, men. We learn that love between men and for men is the only love that matters. And I say this as someone who grew up reading yaoi manga growing up, reading and writing slash and femmeslash and het fanfiction; I remain deeply invested in the homoerotic and homoromantic in popular culture. But when I see these tropes being increasingly mobilized, and to what end–or even when they’re sanitized into the more mass-palatable “bromance”–it grieves me. To see winking conservative homoeroticism supplanting actual queer lives, grieves me. And furthermore, to see homosocial/homoromantic/homoerotic bonds being employed as one more way to excise women and their lives from the picture, from the story, grieves me. There’s nothing radical about that, and every slash fan should be aware of their complicity. There’s a sense in much of fandom culture that someone who ships two same sex characters is simultaneously and necessarily supporting queer rights, but I think it’s incumbent upon us to question where our allegiances are really being directed. It’s certainly not towards any real recognition of queer lives, women’s lives, the lives of people of color. (Jesus, to call out Sherlock alone: the deeply reactionary portrayal of Irene Adler and the staggering Orientalism of the first season’s second episode.)
I mean, I went to see the Cambridge Footlights a few weeks ago (the comedy group that has historically fed talent into contemporary English culture; so much of the most well-known and celebrated comedians and personalities on television and in film from Great Britain, have been a part of the Footlights: John Cleese and the members that became Monty Python, Sacha Baron Cohen, Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, etc., etc.). And the performance was just as I expected, though no less horrifying for having been expected. This is what I wrote to my friend M. after seeing it:
The comedy thing last night was… gah. I was thinking about comedy that only reinforces the worst and most regressive parts of culture. Comedy that misses entirely the radical potential of comedy to destabilize and speak against power, domination. There were three university groups there, Durham, Oxford and Cambridge. And Cambridge is the most famous one, the one that really does feed comedians into the British comedic and cultural landscape. And it was terrifying. F. and I were stunned. You could see all the fucking neuroses of English sexual politics and gender politics and race politics, just manifested in how fucking reactionary their jokes were. Women and men were segregated in the comedy (the other troupes didn’t do that, only Cambridge), so that men would play women’s roles with other men, in a sketch, rather than just act alongside a woman. (Edited to add: stuck in the Elizabethan age, if not worse.) Women were given the stupidest, most insulting jokes and sketches, usually “clumsy aw shucks” physical humor. (Like one girl in a super short skirt was clumsily putting a duvet inside a duvet sheet, but in boring slapstick style, like oh, how clumsy, I don’t know how to put this duvet in its cover, it’s so difficult, isn’t that charming?” Fuck that noise.) And there was all sorts of very disturbing moments to reinforce racist stereotyping.
(Edited to elaborate: As in, they started out with an Chinese-English comedian making fairly intelligent observations about race in the media, about being a Chinese person in films, talking about a silent Asian female character in the movie Final Destination, it was all right. But then, at the very end of the Footlights performance, as if to make up for their brief moment of faint progressiveness, they ended on a sketch founded on a super racist joke about China! As if to say, “Wink, wink, chaps, you know what side we’re really on.” And throughout their entire performance, there were insanely dodgy moments with the comedians of color on stage; at one point, during a sketch in which a white comedian was taking a picture of a black comedian and, I think, two other white comedians, the comedian taking the picture made a great show of struggling, of something being “off,” in the picture, until finally he said to the black comedian: “You know what? You’re what’s wrong with the picture. Fuck off.” And so the guy fucked off! Christ.)
It was really, really scary. Because you can see that the upcoming generation is no more radical than the current generation of English personalities that populate British media right now. The institutionally and pathologically sexist and racist elite that presently dominate the landscape of English culture–will just keep on dominating it, apparently. And that’s horrifying.
It’s also terrifying because it confirmed to us that English men hate women. I don’t know what is wrong with this country. It’s different from any other sexism I’ve encountered anywhere else (except maybe the States, but it’s still different). It’s not the macho Catholic sexism that I grew up with, or even of southern Europe. It’s a homosocial alliance against women as barely tolerated Other. It’s truly at the level of neurosis/psychosis. All the women in the Cambridge sketches died, were murderers (drowned babies in a tub, what the fuck?!), were being sexually assaulted or sexually manipulated (or were doing the sexual manipulation/assault). There’s something seriously wrong with Western culture. And getting worse. It’s part and parcel with all this rise of the bromance shit everywhere. I’ve been wanting to write something about that, mostly with respect to English shows and films. The reactionary deployment of homoeroticism in television and films, to the exclusion of women, the exclusion of actual queer lives. The mainstreaming of homoerotic subtext to add “titillation” to films. In favor of, what, Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law flirting incessantly (but ultimately unspecifically) with each other in the Sherlock Holmes movies and interviews? It drives me fucking insane. (And I loved Robert Downey Jr. growing up.) Sometimes I just want to shake people: “You are being complicit in your own exclusion!” Gah.
But now I’ve digressed from talking about Le gamin au vélo. But then again, it’s not really a digression, since this is a film largely about the end of the father figure. The end of (the rewriting of, the rethinking of) the male role model. The end of thinking that validation from men, between men, is the only validation that matters. The end of thinking that love from men and between men, is the only love that matters. A film that shows us that being so invested in the heroic male, as the archetype exists presently, has failed us entirely. Frankly, we’re dying of it. We’re alone out here, and we’re dying of it.
Here’s the Wikipedia summary of the film:
The story begins with Cyril, a 12-year-old boy in foster care, searching for his father and lost bike. Cyril escapes the foster home to try to find his father at his old apartment. When the caretakers find him, Cyril flees to a doctor’s office nearby, where he grabs onto a woman in the waiting room. Trying to alleviate the situation, the caretakers take Cyril to the empty apartment, confirming that his father has really abandoned him.
The next morning, the woman from the doctor’s office, Samantha, shows up with Cyril’s bike. She says she bought it from someone in the projects, but Cyril thinks it was stolen from his dad. He likes Samantha though, and asks if she would take him in on weekends. Later, through an old personal ad, Cyril discovers that his father actually sold his bike. With Samantha, Cyril is able to finally track down his father. However, his father isn’t happy to be found and tells his son never to come back.
Cyril, heartbroken by his father’s rejection, turns to Samantha for comfort. But despite Samantha’s care, Cyril is soon taken under the wing of a local gang leader known as “The Dealer.” At The Dealer’s prompting, Cyril robs a newsstand owner and his son with a baseball bat. The Dealer, fearing Cyril had been identified, threatens him to keep quiet and forces him to keep the money. Cyril tries giving it to his father only to be chased away. Dejected, Cyril returns to Samantha and finally accepts her care for him. The robbery is settled through mediation, where Cyril apologizes personally to the owner, who accepts, but his son does not and, in a chance encounter, tries to get his revenge. In the ensuing chase, Cyril climbs and falls from a tree. While he lies unconscious, the owner and son discuss what lies to tell the police. While they’re talking, Cyril comes to and walks away, having apparently decided to move on with his life.
Here’s my cut-short recording of the Q&A with Dardenne. The laughter at the beginning is the audience laughing (perhaps it’s nervous laughter? I’m being kind) at the spectacle of the woman sitting on the floor next to Dardenne. I am not laughing. If anything, you might hear me trying not to cut someone. You can hear Dardenne say, “Strange…!” Then, shrugging a little helplessly: “Why not…” Well, there are a lot of reasons why not.
In the Q&A, you hear Dardenne explain that the idea for the film actually came from a story the brothers heard in Tokyo when they were there in 2002 to present another of their films (ee implies that the film presented was The Son [Le fils], which would be fitting, considering the similar plotline and concerns of Le gamin au vélo; an adult who fosters a child, the longing for/love for a surrogate-father/parent). The brothers heard the story from a female juvenile court judge, of a young boy in Tokyo who was left at an orphanage by his father, who said he would return, but never did. The boy remained at the orphanage until he was of legal age, at which point he met a gang leader in the outskirts of Tokyo and–“il a voulu plaire à cet homme, et il a fait un acte assez grave, et c’est comme ça que la juge de la jeunesse l’avait rencontré.” “He wanted to please this guy, so he committed a pretty serious crime, and that’s how the youth judge met him.” “Pour être reconnu, ben, c’était un nouveau père quoi, une substitution.” The boy did it “to be recognized, it was like a new father, a substitution.”
So the brothers kept the story of this abandoned Japanese kid in mind, but couldn’t quite find the narrative to put him in, the story to tell about him. But they’d had another story idea in mind, a young female doctor named Samantha, and Luc Dardenne said it occurred to them to mix the two stories: “Et on s’est dit: tiens–s’il rencontre cette femme, peut-être qu’il pourrait ne pas devenir un criminel.” “And we said to ourselves, hey–if he meets this woman, maybe it’d be possible for him to not become a criminal.” But they changed Samantha’s character from a doctor to a hairdresser, thinking that as a doctor the parallels would be too obvious; doctor, carer, nurturer, etc. So they made her a hairdresser.
When Dardenne was telling this Japanese story, I did think of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai), the film about the four children abandoned by their mother in a Tokyo flat. And since so much of the film is bound up in Cyril’s attachment to his bicycle, his mobility and freedom, I also kept thinking of Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle. All three films touching on young male characters wrestling with abandonment, absentee parents (or simply difficult relationships with a parent, as in Beijing Bicycle, when Jian feels his father is prioritizing his sister and paying for her expensive education over his needs and desires, and who mobilizes his schoolboy gang to steal Guei’s bicycle), crime and delinquency, the morality of violence and love, all the socioeconomic factors that inform and limit and fate a life.
And while all of those issues have always been and remain central in the Dardenne brothers’ filmography–and are crucial to The Kid With a Bike–something else that distinguishes the film for me is the fact that the Dardenne have claimed that the film was meant to be a fairytale; to have a fairytale structure: “We wanted to construct the film as a kind of fairy tale, with baddies who make the boy lose his illusions, and Samantha, who appears as a kind of fairy. For a short while we even thought of calling the film ‘A Fairytale For Our Times.'”
If Luc Dardenne once described of Rosetta‘s eponymous character as “a figure in a documentary, existing outside the fact of being filmed by our camera,” how would we describe Cyril and Samantha? How could we trace the trajectory from documentary to fairytale, to moral fable? And what is the fairytale that we so badly need to hear, to see, to learn, to grow up with, to be told before we sleep, so that we dream towards it, so that it forms our lives, our desires, our morals and ethics, our ideas (and ideals) of love and care, as befitting the vast sociocultural influence of the fairytale? In these times. In “our times.”
I want to talk about weather and color. You can hear Luc Dardenne say in the recording that the film was shot in summer, a first for the brothers. And so many scenes are so utterly flooded with light (unusual for a Dardenne film); in fact, someone in the audience asked about the location of the shoot, why they shot in a different place from their usual haunts. Dardenne corrected the person, saying that no, actually the film was indeed shot where they always film, around the industrial suburbs of Seraing. But the effect of the film being shot in the summer was so dramatic that the area became unrecognizable again, renewed. In the recording, Dardenne makes mention of the importance of summer because of the last scene in the film, in which Cyril climbs a tree to get away from a young man seeking vengeance for an earlier attack in the film. It was better with leaves, Dardenne explains. He also said that it would have been too exaggerated, to compound Cyril’s already serious hardships with bad weather on top of it. Adding furthermore that, in the summer, people tend to wear less, so you generally see more skin.
And the weather does highlight the play of illumination and revelation so necessary to the story–this is a fairytale, with fairytale conventions: which is to say, climate is moral. Is meaningful. As they explain in this interview:
Is kindness difficult to film?
Luc: On the face of it, evil is always more exciting (laughs). It was very important that we shouldn’t portray a clichéd kindness, of course, but that we stick as closely as possible to this feeling of openness and exchange.
Jean-Pierre: Filming a character who has someone else’s best interests at heart hasn’t often happened to us. Shooting in the summer helped us give the film a certain brightness and softness. And Cécile de France conveys these qualities naturally.
Openness, exchange, brightness, softness, warmth. The aesthetics of the film reveals its ethics. It’s apt that Luc Dardenne mentioned during the Q&A the fact of people’s bodies being more revealed in summer, because later in the discussion (not recorded), he talked about the first encounter between Samantha and Cyril, an brusque collision in a medical clinic, in which the two tumble to the floor and Cyril grasps onto Samantha’s body for dear life. Running away from the counsellors (éducateurs) at the children’s home where he has been left. Running into her arms, though she’s at that point a total stranger to him. Dardenne said what was most important was these bodies in contact, these bodies that meet each other, that touch each other, that are brought together, even (especially?) in this fierce and abrupt way.
In that first encounter, Samantha murmurs to him, “You’re hurting me.” When he doesn’t let go, even as the counsellors are imploring him to, she adds, “You can keep holding on to me, but not so hard…”
He’s going to learn what that means, Cyril. How to hold, and be held, gently. How to dissipate the fear that the hand you hold loosely, you’ll inevitably lose.
Brightness, softness. And color. And again as befitting a fairytale, the film isn’t afraid at all to be overtly symbolic with color. Cyril, for one, is nearly always in red. In a bright red shirt, desperately running (running like Rosetta), on his bike, racing through the city streets. The boy cuts through the film like a wound in motion. Red for his rage, red for his hurt. Wound that won’t heal, won’t clot, won’t scar over; the injury still fresh, still acute. And his movements have a feral tension to them, an animal wariness and skittishness and drive for survival. His redness is his wildness, too. His separateness from others, because no one else in the film wears red. He’s alone in his red.
Everyone else–society at large–wears blue, or bluish-gray. A boy who steals his bike (and later lures him into the clutches of a gang) wears bright blue. The son who takes vengeance for Cyril’s attack on him and his father, is wearing bright blue when he meets Cyril again and throws a rock at him in a tree, making him fall. Blue’s the color of society, the color of the law, but in particular it’s the color of male law, male codes. People who maintain that system and its values, wear blue. Macho sons defending their turf or their fathers wear bright blue. (Unfortunately I can’t find pictures of the boys in bright blue shirts, only these counsellors in bluish-gray.)
And when Cyril gets caught up in leader Wes’ gang, he wears a blue shirt underneath his red track jacket. For a moment, he’s one of them. Some part of him isn’t just wild anymore, separate anymore. He’s starting to be subsumed, employed, in that system, in the cycle of unlove, carelessness and violence that the male role models he turns to for affection and validation, keep reproducing.
Wes, on the other hand, wears black, like a good villain, though a scene in which he helps his ailing mother back into bed and turns the television on for her humanizes him. Interestingly, she’s the only actual mother we see in the film.
And in the arbitration scene, during which Cyril formally apologizes for his crime to the father he attacked, everyone is wearing some shade of blue.
More blue: early in the film, back in the children’s home, Cyril refuses to get out of bed for breakfast, or indeed co-operate with anyone at all, despite being called to meet the director of the home. Single-minded in his desperation to find his father, his entire body is contained by a blue sheet. He rolls around in it, hidden in it, stifled in it. You know if he stays in there too long, he’ll suffocate. That’s what my mom would say to me, at least. If he stays in that blue sheet, he’ll die. It’s not a place you can live and breathe.
And when Cyril eventually finds his father? His father is wearing gray.
In both their first encounter, and in their second (and last) encounter, when Cyril tries, unsuccessfully, to give him the money that he’s stolen by beating and robbing the newspaper vendor and his son, Cyril’s father wears gray. The film doesn’t color him in. Gray like he’s checked out of the whole plot. The whole story. Doesn’t want to be a father, doesn’t want to be a role model, doesn’t want to bear the burden of having brought another person into the world. Doesn’t want to (“can’t”) take care of him. Doesn’t want the responsibility. He doesn’t even want to call Cyril, as Samantha suggests he could; just thinking about Cyril stresses him out, he says. He wants to be able to forget that Cyril exists; that he fathered him at all. He’s visibly discomfited by Cyril’s very presence, the heaviness of his look, his questions, his love. Visibly discomfited by how quickly Cyril forgives him when he makes flimsy excuses about why he abandoned him. His son’s bright red shirt, like a persisting stain on his life (fairytale logic means I can be heavyhanded with my metaphors, too, right?). One he’s been trying to wipe out, clean out, erase. Gray out. Neutralize. He’s not an asshole, exactly. Not a brute. He tries to be nice to Cyril–give him paprika chips, a Fanta, let him stir the pots in the kitchen where he works. He’s not trying to destroy the kid. But he’s not willing to love him, either.
He wants to start over, he tells Samantha, asking her to tell Cyril that he doesn’t want to see him anymore. Asking her to tell his son what he doesn’t have the courage to say. She refuses; she forces him to tell Cyril himself. Standing in the door of a restaurant in his gray shirt, looking down at his red son. He tells Cyril not to come see him anymore. He closes the door in his son’s face.
But unlike everyone else, Samantha–in the very first scene, in their very first encounter, as well as in her last scenes in the film–Samantha wears purple.
A vivid purple shirt, purple like a flower or a bruise, purple like royalty and magic, purple like purple prose, purple like red and blue put together. Like something new, but not sui generis; still rooted in the world Cyril knows and lives in. Something related to red and blue, but neither red nor blue. Like, for example: someone who would know, experience and receive anger, but without turning it into rage or brutality. Someone who would represent justice, even authority, but without inevitably becoming a tyrant or a mere servant of the law.
“Purple is a range of hues of color occurring between red and blue.” Someone who has range. Someone who has breadth, wholeness, who encompasses a multitude. Who’s angry when she’s angry, hurt when she’s hurt, happy when she’s happy. Someone who’ll try to be whole for him. Who’ll try to love him wholly. Tenderness–a bruise is tender–wears purple. And even in 2012, women still typically wear more purple than men.
Yes–kindness is difficult to film. Or, that’s what you would be led to believe, looking at most films. M. and I talk about this all the time: the gaping absence of radical love, radical care, radical vulnerability and forgiveness, in our cultural language. Our grave hunger for an ethics, aesthetics, of love, gentleness, tenderness, devotion. In their own synopsis of the film, the brothers write: “Cyril doesn’t recognize the love Samantha feels for him, a love he desperately needs to calm his rage.”
bell hooks, “Love as a Practice of Freedom”:
In this society, there is no powerful discourse on love emerging either from politically progressive radicals or from the Left. The absence of a sustained focus on love in progressive circles arises from a collective failure to acknolwedge the needs of the spirit and an overdetermined emphasis on material concerns. Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed. As long as we refuse to address fully the place of love in struggles for liberation we will not be able to create a culture of conversation where there is a mass turning away from an ethic of domination.
Without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations ,we are often seduced, in one way or the other, into continued allegiance to systems of domination–imperialism, sexism, racism, classism. It has always puzzled me that women and men who spend a lifetime working to resist and oppose one form of domination can be systematically supporting another. I have been puzzled by powerful visionary black male leaders who can speak and act passionately in resistance to racial domination and acept and embrace sexist domination of women, by feminist white women who work daily to eradicate sexism but who have major blind spots when it comes to acknowledging and resisting racism and white supremacist domination of the planet. Critically examining these blind spots, I conclude that many of us are motivated to move against domination solely when we feel our self-interest directly threatened. Often, then, the longing is not for a collective transformation of society, an end to politics of dominations, but rather simply for an end to what we feel is hurting us. This is why we desperately need an ethic of love to intervene in our self-centered longing for change. Fundamentally, if we are only committed to an improvement in that politic of domination that we feel leads directly to our individual exploitation or oppression, we not only remain attached to the status quo but act in complicity with it, nurturing and maintaining those very systems of domination. Until we are all able to accept the interlocking, interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained ,we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual quest for freedom and collective liberation struggle.
The Kid with a Bike’s fairytale is a radical love story; a tale about choosing love over violence, valuing the preciousness of life over the pull of revenge, rejecting patriarchal worship for a woman’s love. In the arbitration scene, when Cyril apologizes to the father he mugged (all in an unsuccessful bid for gang leader Wes’ love and approval, Cyril’s last failed attempt at some semblance of fatherly love), we notice that only the father is present, not the son. Cyril asks why the son didn’t come. The father says that his son does not accept Cyril’s apology. Which is to say, the son is still invested in the flawed male honor codes—the whole ritual of protecting and worshipping and avenging the father—that have been the source of so much of the film’s suffering, brutality.
And when the son eventually glimpses Cyril again during a chance encounter at the gas station (the son in bright blue, Cyril in bright red), he chases Cyril down, pushing him off his bike, beating him, kicking him, chasing him up a tree. In fact, there are multiple instances throughout the film in which Cyril is chased up the tree, by counsellors, by gang members, like a frightened animal, fighting to survive. And of course it was the desired scene of Cyril up a tree, in the green leaves, that prompted the Dardenne to shoot in summer in the first place. Wild summer.
The son throws a rock at Cyril, who falls from the tree and is knocked unconscious; at this point, you’re sure he’s dead. The father comes around to meet his son, who explains what he’s done. “Why’d you have to do that,” the father cries. They both head back towards Cyril’s motionless body, but beforehand, they quickly discuss what they’ll do if Cyril is dead, how they’ll explain it, how they’ll hide the son’s fault—“There’s a cut on his hand, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be from the rock, he could have hit it on the way down,” the son suggests. You can practically see the wall of patriarchal-filial protection coming up around them.
Cyril’s cell phone rings in his pocket; you know it’s Samantha, she’s the one who gave him the phone in the first place. Father and son are visibly guilt-stricken, panicked, about to call an ambulance. Then, suddenly: Cyril moves, awkwardly and with difficulty. Gets up. They stare down at him in disbelief. It’s something very near a miracle. No, not near. It’s a miracle.
“You have a concussion, we should call you an ambulance,” the father says to Cyril, gently.
But Cyril only replies: “Non.”
He picks up the charcoal he went to the gas station to buy, the charcoal for Samantha’s barbecue. He doesn’t say another word. He leaves the forest. Father and son staring after him. Gets on his bike. Rides away. The film ends.
The enormity of Cyril’s simple: “Non.” His quiet refusal to even participate in the father-son dynamic. He receives the vengeance served to him and doesn’t pay it back. Takes his hits and walks away, rides away. He doesn’t hit back, doesn’t want help, or retribution. He’s going back to life. Going back to Samantha.
Dardenne repeated on Sunday night what he’s said in other interviews about the film: “We were adamant that the audience would never find out why Samantha is drawn to Cyril. We didn’t want psychological explanations. We didn’t want the past to explain the present. We wanted the audience to think: “She is doing this!” Which is plenty already.” During the Q&A, he explained that they didn’t want to give Samantha an overt background—as in, is she someone who can’t have a child, has she lost a child, why on earth is she so ready to take in Cyril, etc. That the audience would only be able to conclude, as Dardenne put it: “Je sais pas pourquoi elle a fait ça, mais… elle a bien fait de le faire.” “I don’t know why she did that, but… it was good that she did it.” Or more like: “She did good, doing it.
And it’s this lack of an explicitly maternalized background for Samantha that makes the film’s love ethic all the more profound; the way it shows the possibility of a mothering love beyond maternity alone, beyond the bonds of kinship that are as capable of separating and oppressing us as much as they connect and heal us. We’re not told that Samantha loves and cares for Cyril because he’s a replacement for some son she lost, some child she never had. She shows no sign of being particularly interested in the cult of the family. It’s not because she is necessarily or naturally maternal that she’s so willing, so unafraid, to mother Cyril. Essentially: Cyril asks for her (asks, abruptly, during their second encounter, if he can stay with her on weekends; she says yes; he doesn’t believe that she will be true to her word; she says she will). Cyril asks for her, and she says yes. He calls her, and she answers. What it is to answer another person’s needs, to respond to the other when you are called–to be responsible? Early in the film, we see that Samantha has given Cyril a cell phone. Cyril later gives the cell phone number to his father–who will never call. But Samantha calls Cyril multiple times during the film. And when he’s betraying her faith and trust to spend time with Wes, his cell phone rings. First he answers, lying to her. The second time it rings, Wes tells him to turn it off. What Cyril’s going to learn is what it means to really answer another person–to truly respond when someone calls him. And in that last scene, when Cyril is unconscious and his cell phone is ringing in his pocket, it’s as if it’s precisely her call that he awakens to. Her call that calls him back from death. Into life. When he simply walks away from the father and son, rides back to Samantha, it’s to a call he’s finally ready to respond to. A life he’s responsible in, and for.
And Samantha’s intuitive grasp on how profound and expansive responsibility is, how bound up responsibility is in the polymorphous act of mothering, shows us how much we need that kind of expanding, that kind of diversifying, of what it means to mother and be mothered by someone–what it means to let go of our exclusive attachment to the father figure alone, the charismatic-heroic man, what it means to finally say that hero worship is not enough: we need to be loved. In our wholeness, beyond adoration or admiration or domination. We need to be loved. We need mothering beyond the mother and the father; mothering beyond genealogy.
Indeed, there is a way of thinking about The Kid with a Bike as the third in a Dardenne trilogy about the trials of geneaology, along with The Son and the The Child; with The Kid with a Bike finally imagining a kind of radically antigenealogical vision of love, care, responsibility, relation to the other. With the title now now naming someone who is a “kid” (Le gamin au vélo: a gamin, which in French has the weight also of something more like “urchin,” something out of Oliver Twist; someone who isn’t anyone’s kid), before and beyond being anyone’s “son” (Le fils, 2002), “child,” (L’Enfant, 2005). A kid, an orphan, an urchin. An other who finds another. You’re nobody’s son, or nobody wants you to be. You have to find a different way to belong. A different way to belong to what you’re longing for.
Any supposedly revolutionary love ethic that doesn’t also think about how we can really learn to raise, nurture, care for and heal each other–not by merely honoring the duties of kinship, but by expanding our notions of attachment and identity–is going to be incomplete. Furthermore, any supposedly progressive love ethic that doesn’t address–and work to redress–how globally and historically degraded the act of loving women and being loved by women, in their total complexity and humanity, has been, is going to be incomplete.
However, that isn’t to say that the film proposes an unproblematically and unambiguously progressive, feminist love/care ethic. It’s worth asking whether or not the film’s portrayal of Samantha is reductive, whether it merely rehashes an essentialist notion of Woman as Natural Caretaker, Woman as Childrearer, thereby also reinforcing the gendered separation of, enclaving of, the unpaid domestic and affective sphere that has been a largely feminized zone, and what Nancy Fraser describes as “one [of], if not the, linchpin of modern women’s subordination.”
It’s telling that the Dardennes originally had Samantha’s character (in the story from which she originally came, before they combined her narrative with Cyril’s/the Japanese boy’s) as a doctor, but once her narrative came into contact with Cyril’s, they changed her profession to a hairdresser. Luc Dardenne’s explanation was that to be a doctor would have made the caretaker analogy too explicit; hairdresser was more oblique. But it also repositions Samantha back within a more traditionally gendered and sexualized profession, not to mention a more precarious socioeconomic status. Samantha is a working-class woman in the service industry (a “pink-collar” worker) living in the industrial suburbs of Seraing; that the Dardennes deemed this necessary for her relationship with Cyril to thrive, seems significant. The first thing I thought when Luc Dardennes said that Samantha’s character was originally a doctor was–as the daughter of parents in the medical profession–that in that incarnation, Samantha would never have the time, or even the emotional and psychological stamina, to be so available for Cyril in her “downtime.” Is there a commentary here on the role of paid labor in male-dominated, classical capitalist societies, and its division from the unpaid feminized domestic sphere that is responsible for social reproduction yet often remains an invisible site of labor within a capitalist economy? Samantha provides Cyril the mothering and haven he so desperately longs for, but why is she capable of doing that? What are the conditions that make her time available to him?
For when we meet Cyril’s father, we see that he is working as a cook in a kitchen–a low-waged job, or so he implies when he emphasizes how little time he has and how much money he is trying to save. And yet the kitchen itself is immaculate, looks well-equipped and modern. The restaurant itself, we learn, is owned by a woman heavily implied to be Cyril’s father’s new girlfriend. That the father’s abandonment of Cyril might also be linked to his upwardly mobile ambitions, is also part of the larger critique the film is making about love and care in late capitalism, and how gendered our expectations of who is capable of love and care, still are. Both Cyril’s father and Samantha share the same socioeconomic status. Why can Cyril’s father shuck his responsibility to Cyril, while Samantha is somehow equipped to take it up–because as a working man his participation in the capitalist economy overshadows his participation in the domestic sphere, and such a renunciation is ultimately more culturally expected, if not acceptable, because men’s obligation to children–to the symbolic and material reproduction of all social life–has not been as naturalized as women’s? It’s admittedly a delicate line that the Dardennes are balancing, emphasizing the gendered socioeconomic and sociocultural subtext that conditions the whos and hows of love, care, labor in Cyril’s world. The line is between pointing out that subtext, and reinforcing the gender divide that subtext reifies.
In a review of The Kid with a Bike in UK-based magazine Sight and Sound, reviewer Kieron Corless warns us to be suspicious of the film’s “feminist tinge”:
By and large men in the film don’t acquit themselves well, are somehow ‘fallen,’ selfish; that same shop owner urges his son to evade responsibility for a potential manslaughter. This is the trap Cyril must learn to recognise and avoid, ending up like one of them. And on this evidence women are better equipped to raise and nurture boys, preferably alone; men can be just a negative and unwelcome influence.
All well and good, and certainly a fairytale with a difference, a feminist tinge, but still a fairytale; which is to say reductive, too tidy, with the cards stacked too much in favour of certain characters. The brothers’ oft-stated and overriding attachment to the real seems slightly in abeyance here; there’s a blunting of their customary subtlety and complexity. You probably couldn’t accuse them of anything so crass as a message or the imparting of a lesson (although there’s sometimes been a muted, subterranean tendency to didacticism in their work); more the advancement of a thesis, for which the fairytale vehicle provides a handy alibi. You may find yourself choosing to resist its spell.
How is that when a female character is shown to be frank and straightforward in her care, she’s called two-dimensional (as if we’re not bombarded at all times with actually two-dimensional–if that–portrayals of women far more damaging, degrading and reductive than Samantha’s here)? And “subtlety and complexity”? In cinema nowadays that usually means, as the Dardenne said earlier: something like Evil. Humanizing and exploring the complexity of evil. I’m particularly thinking about the fawning rhetoric of “subtlety and complexity” that surrounds actors who choose roles that “humanize” the most brutal and regressive figures in history. All the hyper-conservative, regressive, nostalgic biopics that mainstream cinema endlessly churns out. As if there’s anything even remotely progressive about this “humanizing.”
So where is the room for humanizing and exploring the complexity of love? Care? Kindness? The socially and historically specific conditions that inform our expressions of just those qualities? Because the Dardennes chose not to make a film only about misery, but dared to suggest a way out of it (not unproblematically), suddenly their fidelity to the “real” is called into question? It’s astonishing to me how invested people in this culture are, in maintaining the idea that women are only real when they suffer, or make other people suffer. In any case, fidelity to the “real” alone doesn’t suffice. Not for art, not for politics, not for ethics, not for any way of living in this world. And the “real” isn’t limited to, what, as most people seem to categorize Dardenne films, “gritty landscapes of socioeconomic despair in which people struggle without solution or end.” Of course, people love to watch films like that; despair is a great spectator sport for the comfortable cynic.
“You may find yourself choosing to resist its spell.” My god. The entire world has been resisting this “spell” forever, and look where we are. Maybe it’s time we try radical enchantment.
As Robert Glück wrote in Elements of a Coffee Service, talking about Freud:
Voices assure Dr. Schreber that his proposed transformation into a woman is an abomination. The world’s contempt crushes his personality, so he gathers his shattered gestures and rewrites them, elevating his degradation by staging it as comic drama. But isn’t it Freud’s disease, too? Frankly, Freud’s clinical and bemused objectivity repel me, it’s a violence that colludes with the disease; we wait in vain for him to say that being a woman is not contemptible.
For throughout the film, what Cyril is really looking for is mothering–from his father (he’s already “fathered” him, now it’s time to mother him), from Wes. But these men are not yet capable of mothering. They, too, will have to be told this fairytale.
In her post, “By Heart,” Masha Tupitsyn writes:
We need more mother love. Wanting mother love is queerer than the standard girl wants her father and boy wants his mother. Nothing really gets challenged in that binary. There is Daddy’s girl and there is Mama’s boy, but is there a Daddy’s boy or a Mama’s girl? The feminine and the maternal in men is rarer than the phallic and the masculine in women, for women (both straight and queer) are taught to identify with sexism in order to access power. But what man is taught that strength is synonymous with vulnerability and femininity? What man is told that he’ll be rewarded if he cares like a mother?
And this is one of the lessons that Cyril has to learn, and why I think the film still remains progressive, and not reductive, in its portrayal of childrearing and care: how to recognize and value and practice himself, mother love. How to get out of a gendered dynamic of domination and subordination that’s killing him, and kids like him. He’s not only learning about how to be mothered, but also how to mother, how to embody and reproduce those values himself, as a boy. Do we teach enough boys how to be mothers? How to live and love others like mothers? By choosing Samantha, and what loving her and being loved by her entails, Cyril is living bell hooks’ words: “A culture of domination is anti-love. It requires violence to sustain itself. To choose love is to go against the prevailing values of the culture.”
In the scene in which Cyril is fighting to escape Samantha’s apartment on the night of the mugging, they fight. She grabs at him, he pushes her, she chases him throughout her apartment, down to the hairdressing salon where she works. They knock over a bunch of hairdressing supplies. He gets something sharp in his hand (I couldn’t see if it was a knife, a pair of scissors). At this point the audience gasped, expecting the worst. Cyril stabs Samantha in the arm, very quickly and sharply. She cries out, she’s injured, she pulls back for a minute. He takes off. But then she just gets up and takes off after him again. She doesn’t give up on him. She’s tough in her love, strong in her care. The way you can be tough in love, strong in care. I often say that the softest people are the strongest; people who are hard are brittle. But softness can endure more. Softness is flexible, movable, living. To be soft in a life, to be soft for another person, takes more strength. Takes more commitment. He stabbed her in her soft arm, and she kept going. It’s because she’s soft for him that she can be strong for him, and when are we going to learn this? That to be soft for other people can also mean being strong for other people. That only by being really soft for other people, can we really be strong for people; only by being really soft for other people, can we really be for other people, full-stop. Me, soft for you. You, soft for me.
So Samantha gets up, keeps chasing him, calling after him, even after he’s managed to take off on his bike. Towards his substitute father-figure, towards the tragedy you know is looming.
And when he finally returns to the hairdressing salon, rejected by Wes (who threatens to kill him if he dares tell the police that the robbery was entirely Wes’ plan), rejected a second and final time by his father (who, when Cyril tries to give him the stolen money, hesitates for a moment and then finally shoos him away, tells him, ‘You’ll put me in jail with your stolen money,’)–when Cyril returns, Samantha opens the door. Looks at him and says only that the police are looking for him, that they’re going to go to the station now. He quietly agrees, puts his bike away, waits for her.
When she comes back out, jacket on, ready to go, he stops her. He apologizes for what he did to her arm. He says he would like to live with her.
She looks at him, waits. Sways back slightly, thinking. Then says, “D’accord.” “Okay.” Just like that, “d’accord.” Then: “Allez, embrasse-moi.” They hug.
You can sense that the Dardennes were doing everything in their power to keep this scene of reunion, remorse and forgiveness, from being overly “sentimental.” That Cyril give his apology simply, and Samantha give her forgiveness simply. She’s not interested in punishment to exert power, establish dominance. She loves him. She forgives him. She puts her arm around him. Their two bodies in contact.
Look at Cyril’s face throughout the photos here in this post. Throughout the film, his face is just a portrait of yearning. Practically engraved with it. The way he looks at Wes in the car after the botched robbery; the way he looks at his father. The way he looks through windows, searching, searching, not finding. His desperate wary longing look. A face desperate for love. A face like a question, a plea. A long waiting for love. When his father rejects him the first time, driving back in the car with Samantha, he breaks down, starts wildly scratching at his own face. So in the later scenes, he has a bloody scratch down one eye that gives him the air of a mystic. You can somewhat see it in this picture:
He doesn’t even begin to smile until he’s around Samantha, and more specifically, until he’s accepted the love and shelter she’s so willing to give him. When he’s accepted that, at least for now, it’s not coming from the men who’ve been in his life thus far. When he finally wants to love her, too.
Towards the end of the movie (but just before he is attacked by the other son), Samantha and Cyril are biking together. He realizes that her bike’s gears can go double the speed of his, and he asks if he can try her bike. She says sure. They switch bikes; her on his precious, jealously guarded bike, and him on her much larger bike, made for her taller body. It’s the first time he’s ever let anyone even touch his bike in the whole movie; and only the second time he’s ever trusted someone to keep it safe. Earlier in the film, when he was told that his father sold his bike, he refused to believe it, but this trust was disappointed–his father did sell the bike.
But now, for the first time, Samantha can ride his bike. And more than that, he’s ready to ride her bike—a woman’s bike. A bike much larger than his. And he struggles with it; it’s strange to see him so awkward on a bike, given how speedy and confident and urgent he is on his own bike. He struggles to adapt his body, his rhythms, to an apparatus made for her body, her rhythms. Before, he stirred his father’s pots, followed all of Wes’ instructions on how to beat another person. Now he’s learning how to ride a woman’s bike. To literally move in the world otherwise than through androcentric modes.
Later, they stop to eat sandwiches. Cyril offers her the first pick–tuna for her, cheese for him. When Samantha suggests a friend to invite over for a barbecue at her place later that evening, he says, “And what about you, aren’t you going to invite a friend for you, too?” It’s the first time he’s ever made a comment concerned about her life, her welfare, her happiness. It’s the first time he’s ever made a comment that is (along with the earlier offering of sandwiches)–nurturing, motherly.
Earlier in the film, a boyfriend of Samantha, angry at Cyril, said to her: “C’est lui ou c’est moi.” “It’s him or me.” And Samantha looked at him and said plainly: “C’est lui.” “It’s him.” Chooses Cyril. At the time, did Cyril realize that she was probably the first person in his life who had ever chosen him, over someone else? At the time he was still too busy waiting in vain for the men in his life to choose him.
And now he asks, Aren’t you going to invite a friend for you, too? Samantha bursts out laughing in response. Gazes at Cyril, a little in wonder. Then chuckles again. She doesn’t answer, smiling. In this scene we can see the emergence of a reciprocal mothering, a mutual nurturing. Cyril being ready to ride Samantha’s bike, and let her ride his; to switch places, to be in the other’s place, to let the other be in his place. “Openness and exchange,” as the Dardennes said. Ready to mother her and be mothered by her; to love her and be loved by her. We’re more than ready for that fairytale to come true. We’ve been waiting a long time.
Folks want to know how to begin the practice of loving. For me that is where education for critical consciousness has to enter. When I look at my life, searching it for a blueprint that aided me in the process of decolonization, of personal and political self-recovery, I know that it was learning the truth about how systems of domination operate that helped, learning to look both inward and outward with a critical eye. Awareness is central to the process of love as the practice of freedom. Whenever those of us who are members of exploited and oppressed groups dare to critically interrogate our locations, the identities and allegiances that inform how we live our lives, we begin the process of decolonization. If we discover in ourselves self-hatred, low self-esteem, or internalized white supremacist thinking and we face it, we can begin to heal. Acknowledging the truth of our reality, both individual and collective, is a necessary stage for personal and political growth. This is usually the most painful stage in the process of learning to love–the one many of us seek to avoid. Again, once we choose love, we instinctively possess the inner resources to confront that pain. Moving through the pain to the other side we find joy, the freedom of spirit that a love ethic brings.
6 thoughts on ““Folks want to know how to begin the practice of loving”: on Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike”
Thanks Eliane. When I see the film, I’ll read the crux of your article. Many images of The Child have stayed with me for years.
Hope it comes out soon where you are, Greg. Not to give anything away, but as I mentioned in the post, I think you’ll definitely find resonances between The Kid with a Bike and the Child, along with their 2002 film, The Son.
Thanks for that! Saw the film at BFI last night and it really moved me; came across your review looking for something challenging S&S’s cold take on it.
I also think that the scene of choosing Cyril over the boyfriend is important for its showing the possessive male that his power over Samantha is hmmm… far from absolute.
Hi Ania, thanks for commenting! Is it out at the BFI now? That’s tempting, I could watch it again… Agreed on S&S’s review, and on the scene with Samantha choosing Cyril in the car. How she upends his macho assumptions about who will be prioritized and what kind of love must always take precedence (romantic/sexual over adoptive, inventive-kinship, nurturing). So, so moving and powerful in how it plays out. How the boyfriend finally goes, It’s him or me, and Samantha just very simply replies: It’s him.
Hi Elaine, if you wanna see it at BFI, hurry up, it’s only on tonight (26th) and tomorrow (27th), in the Studio, an amazing intimate cinema space.
Regarding the boyfriend, it’s not only what kind of love must take precedence (which of course is a spot on critique). For me, it is primarily how this guy, who she refers to merely as ‘ami’, thinks he can ‘naturally’ speak for both of them, make decisions about her flat (in which he doesn’t even live!) and ‘naturally’ play the Punishing Father role! Outrageous, I thought. Go Samantha.
Ooh, thanks for the heads-up, though I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it today or tomorrow, darn.
And yes, yes, absolutely! Those are great points. Punishing Father is a perfect way of putting it, the way he behaves towards Cyril during the whole car ride before the break-up, yes–and which she totally rejects. Especially the “natural” part, that she rejects his naturalized, normalized assumptions about the role of the man in a supposedly “family” dynamic. Thanks for helping illuminate that for me.
Go Samantha, for sure! We need more Samanthas. Gosh, talking about it again, now I really want to watch it. Sigh.
Heading over to Twitter to follow you now; mine’s at _elainecastillo. Just saw you tweeted about Pina Bausch; I wasn’t able to make it to any of the World Cities performances, was it not good? I did love Wim Wenders’ documentary PINA and love so much of her work, have been wanting to write on PINA for a while now. I definitely hear you on the horror of audiences taking painful or emotionally visceral moments for slapstick. (When I watched PINA, they laughed during Cafe Muller, for example.) Spectator laughter at intense moments, that compulsion to contain the intensity, always disturbs me.