Dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, Belgium/ France/Italy, 2011, 87 mins, in French with English subtitles
Cast: Thomas Doret, Cécile de France, Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione, Egon di Mateo
Review by Colin Dibben
2011’s Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner is a disarmingly simple ‘show, don’t tell’ tale that explores issues of child psychology and parental love with both clarity and brevity.
Cyril (Thomas Doret) is an angry 13 year-old boy. His father, Guy (Jérémie Renier) has left him in a children’s home, where Cyril lashes out at staff every chance he gets. Driven by the need to find the father who has abandoned him, Cyril rushes around town on his bike, retracing his father’s steps. He meets hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France) who agrees to help him. The film follows the development of Cyril and Samantha’s relationship, as she starts to think about fostering and he comes to terms with the parental love she is showing him.
The Dardenne brothers make disarmingly simple, calm, naturalist films about young people on the edges of society. They do this so well that six of their films since 1999 have won major prizes at Cannes Film Festival, including the Palme d’Or twice – for Rosetta and L’Enfant – and the Grand Prix last year for this film.
Young, non-professional actor Thomas Doret’s performance is the heart of this film. His screen presence is all restless activity, sullen defiance and violent outbursts. But his performance compels the viewer to think about the reasons behind this behavior, as any good parent would. The Dardennes’ naturalist approach is not one in which behaviour is pathological or evil – all their films exude a faith in the essential goodness of people, even those who appear ‘difficult’. So, Cyril slowly becomes more accepting of Samantha’s love, because this love answers his need for affection. Unfortunately, at the same time, he meets local drug-dealer Wes (Egon di Mateo), whose attention also answers a need, and so there are other elements of Cyril’s immediate environment conspiring against him.
At one point, Samantha asks a sullen Cyril ‘What do you want?’. This is the key to both her character’s goodness and the generosity of the Dardennes’ own approach to cinema. They enable their central characters to express their true desires and recognize them as such. And because the characters are truly human, their desires are simple and positive.
This film reveals its psychological truths in a light and non intrusive manner, comparable for example to many of Ken Loach’s films. No-one says ‘All this kid needs is love’ – which is too easy to prescribe – but the film is all about how to show that love. It also shows that the bigger problem may be getting a child to admit to their need for love and then accepting that love, especially if you are a foster parent or guardian.
If there is an issue with this film, it’s that it is so simple and unaffected by monumentally that it gets lost on the big screen. And if you were to watch it more than once on DVD, you may detect a sanctimonious undertone to that simplicity.