On a world tour of the festival circuit for “The Son” in 2002, Luc and Jean Pierre Dardenne were approached by the film’s Japanese distributor to see if the drama, about the relationship between a father and the murderer of his son, could be included as part of a campaign in Tokyo against the death penalty.
“We agreed,” said Jean-Pierre, through a translator. “There was a judge for youth that told us a story about a child in Tokyo that she took care of and had done some pretty bad things when he became an adult. This child, who had no mother, was abandoned by his father. And his father said, ‘I’m going to come back’ and he never had. He waited for his father for years and years. So when we came back from Japan, my brother and I talked a lot about this child and we ended up creating the character of Cyril.”
A decade would pass before Cyril would reach the big screen in the Dardennes’ latest film “The Kid With a Bike,” but the restless young boy who has trouble allowing a kindly hair stylist to care for him when the memory of his father still lingers as his desired guardian has been transplanted from where the character was inspired in Japan to the brothers’ childhood home in Belgium. As Jean Pierre added, “I don’t know why, but all the characters we come up with and the people we can think of, we end up placing them back in this place of Seraing.”
In fact, all of the Dardennes’ films have taken place in and around the province since the start of their career in the ‘70s when after venturing to Brussels for their college education, they returned to Seraing and Liège, the steel towns connected by the Meuse River, to document the labor movement that took place in the recession-ravaged region. It was there that Luc and Jean-Pierre grew up watching the films of Bresson, Bertolucci and Truffaut in high school, though they maintain they were less influenced by the filmmakers than the place they grew up.
“I think what was important was the town,” Luc said, in reference to the inspiration for their latest film. “The city where we shoot our movies in Seraing, we saw it when it was alive, when there was a lot of intergenerational communication where it was a living city and when we came back 20 years later, it had been abandoned. There was no longer a train station. All the stores were closed. And that’s when we saw young people starting to appear that were very alone. A lot of unemployed, a lot of parents that were unemployed and no work for the kids.”
Of course, the Dardennes have changed that to some degree, not only by augmenting their casts with nonprofessional actors, but giving their stories an international platform. Films such as “Rosetta,” the 1999 drama that starred Émilie Dequenne as a young woman struggling to afford a better life, and “L’Enfant,” the 2005 film about a man (Jérémie Renier) caught in a quandary after scoring some quick cash by selling his newborn into adoption, showed the gritty underground of the industrialized town that in some ways time has left behind and with wins for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, each were guaranteed international notoriety. Yet their latest “The Kid With a Bike” presents the region in a kinder light, literally, using bright colors unfamiliar to their previous palette and, for the first time, even swells of music. As the two explained during the New York Film Festival, there was an easy answer for this newfound optimism.
“We film these people because we like to film these people,” Jean-Pierre concluded. “We like these people. I suppose we could tell similar stories that take place in other milieus. We have a lot of empathy — it’s not even political, it’s pre-political. I wouldn’t even say it’s because we come from the same background. That’s not it. We lived there about 10 years, so when we did our first documentaries, that’s where we did them with those people and that place. We worked in the working class district, we set up workshops where the kids could do drawings for sets and designs. It came from there. It came from our life and what we did before. When we think of making a movie, we always think of these people that we knew in Liège, Seraing and that part of the world.”