The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne write and direct moral fables that happen to be about working-class people, filmed with a handheld camera. Their The Kid with a Bike, opening March 16, concerns the troubled preteen Cyril (first-time actor Thomas Doret, a dynamo), abandoned by his father, who learns to control his emotions and live with others through the intervention of a good fairy: a hairdresser named Samantha (Cecile de France). I spoke to the Dardennes, through a French interpreter, during last fall's New York Film Festival, in a hotel's "Presidential Suite," featuring a four-poster bed, suggestive crystal sculpture, and reproduction Rothkos on the wall. Before the interview began, Luc Dardenne pointed out highlights of the décor, then fixed me with a look and said (not asked, said), "Your home, too."
I don't know that it matters to the film, but I'm always curious how much filmmakers know about stuff that isn't in the movie. Where is the mother?
Luc Dardenne: She's not here. [Pause, just long enough for interviewer to become nervous.]
You have to choose when you make a movie. We decided that the person that the boy needs is his father. So we couldn't have the mother there. You can say that she died, or that she disappeared with another guy. We didn't want to tell her story, furthermore, because the boy meets a woman who's called Samantha.
I want to ask about the biting. The way Cyril bites people in fights, it makes him seem almost feral, not fully adapted to society.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Well it's true that Cyril is a violent person. Well because, probably I mean, he's subject to this terrible violence of having been abandoned by his father. That makes one violent, oneself. It's the way he found to be able to continue living. What the film talks about is really how he can extricate himself from this violence. How will his meeting with Samantha allow him to extricate himself from this violence and this life.
I noticed that Cecile de France's character is wearing feather earrings at some point, and then later she is wearing shirts with animal prints. Is she, like the good fairy, surrounded by animals?
LD: You may see that in there, but that's not what we were thinking. It's possible to see it that way.
How important, in general, are clothes to you? How much time do you spend on them? How do you assemble the details of the film?
J-PD: Ok, the costumes are very important to us. We start the costume fittings when we start rehearsals.
LD: And until the last moment we leave ourselves open to changing them. Because it's like the rehearsals. All the time that is devoted to trying on different costumes, takes us out of anything that could be stereotypical.
J-PD: You know, stereotypes that we may have about the characters, or that the actors may have about the characters.
LD: Because the normal response is that you want to lock the characters immediately into a certain personage. Then you're happy, the work is over. You know: if he's a juvenile delinquent then he has a sweatshirt with a hood and then we're done. That's the natural reaction.
J-PD: Whenever an actor says "Hey, I like this jacket, this is good," we always, on purpose, say we don't like it. Maybe later we'll say, "Hey, well, maybe this jacket." But you know actors, you always have to throw them off a bit. Throw them off balance, otherwise they don't work well. Whether they're professionals or not.
LD: And never can they decide with the costume designer, with the makeup artist, without us.
A professor of mine once observed that in the novels of Theodore Dreiser, money is mentioned on almost every page. And money appears in so many scenes that you shoot. One of the ways Samantha teaches Cyril to be responsible and self-sufficient is by teaching him to be responsible with money.
LD: Absolutely. That's why in our films we like to have a little scene where the character goes and buys something in a store. You know, he pays, they say, "This is how much it is." He says, "Ok." There's a contract between them. You know, you learn the value of things. And he respects that contract.
In some ways, it's very striking the way the character of the father begins by feeling guilty for not being there for his son. Lying and saying "I'll call you." And then doesn't even say that. Would it be accurate to say that this is in some ways a film about what motivates people to be responsible to each other? What does motivate that? Is it guilt or obligation or something more mysterious?
LD: I hope it's not guilt solely. I mean, I hope it's also empathy. The fact that, if somebody is suffering, you suffer with them. Under normal circumstances. Well, you don't if you're perverse and you actually take pleasure in seeing another human suffer.
Guilt can also push somebody towards that. I mean, for instance if Cyril's father learned that he had done something really bad, then maybe it might push him to think, 'Wow, maybe it's because of me that he ended up doing something bad. That he met somebody like that."
I mean, guilt ok, maybe. Unless it becomes almost pathological. But otherwise I think guilt is kind of a good thing.
To change the subject completely; when I told a colleague I was interviewing you, he said, "Well you have to ask them about Resident Evil. Are they fans? How did that end up in the film?" Although your films depict a world that feels very familiar to us, there's very little pop culture in them generally. So Resident Evil stands out even more.
J-PD: It's because... [Brief, bilingual crosstalk, during which filmmakers and interviewers explain to translator that Resident Evil is a film and video game series beloved by an older boy, a malevolent influence in the film.] Well, that's why it pops up, its a character that's known to most people. And that's the first time we've done that. You know, the fact that we're using pop culture to underscore one of our characters who's playing a character in the game...
LD: What interested us about the character is that he mimicked, he was an imitator. He was a boy that was playing a part. And, you know, bad numbers are often people that are playing a part and are watching themselves play the part.
In the first film of Terrence Malick, Badlands, you remember the main character is imitating James Dean. People that are doing those kind of deeds are always imitating a character.
Would it be accurate to say that the end of many of your films shows the characters demonstrating what they've learned in the film? A capacity for empathy that was lacking earlier?
LD: It's true. That's a little bit what we're trying to do. We kind of always make the same movie.
It's true that the characters in our movies meet someone else. And they accept this meeting of someone else. Because it's very difficult. It's very difficult to meet someone else, to go towards someone else. One has more of a tendency of closing in.
J-PD [in English]: We are optimists.