The brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne work in a world of efficient drama. Their cinema is stripped of sentimentality yet still captures intimate moments with powerful focus that stays with a viewer long after leaving the cinema. Their spare films are experiences that stick like solid memories. You know when you have seen a Dardenne film. Characters suffer ordeals or undergo life changes that feel visceral and personal. Sometimes they are subtle (the titular character of Rosetta [1999] undergoes a glimmer of change that may or may not help her rise out of a downtrodden life in a trailer park). Other times they are more dramatic (the main character of Lorna’s Silence [2008] finds the strength and cunning to free herself from a world that could be considered modern slavery).

The Dardennes have a consistent style. Simple, sudden splices separate the scenes. There are no fades, overlaps or dissolves. Everything is shot on handheld high-definition digital cameras. There are no dramatic singular shots like swoops, zooms or close-ups. The soundtrack generally avoids non-diegetic music. When such music does appear, it stands out with potent purpose. Lighting seems natural and unfiltered. The actors have a natural style, and the Dardennes have been known to work with non-stars or non-actors. The brothers have never strayed from this style over the years. In fact, they have only perfected and fine-tuned it. The mix of these techniques effectively capture a austerity where only the drama of the situations influence the audience in an authentic and honest manner.

All the action that unfolds in a film by the Dardennes never feels superfluous. They build up the scenes with such efficiency that when the last few scenes arrive toward the end of the film, the balance of suspense fills you with anticipation. You begin to trust the Dardennes on an almost subconscious level. If a character goes off to do something seemingly banal, you know it will have to serve the story in some way. No moment is wasted in a film by this duo.

None of the Dardenne films I have seen have felt more tight and focused than the Kid With a Bike, which only now finally finds a distributor in IFC Films after sharing the 2011 Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The film follows 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) on his quest for a father figure after his biological father (Jérémie Renier) leaves him at a boarding school. The insistent quality of this little boy is smartly established at the start of the film when he refuses to give up listening to an out-of-service message on the phone, as a school counselor pleads him to hang up the receiver.

Cyril feels kinetic, even while laying in bed. He always seems breathless. He’s a steadfast creature. When the neighborhood drug dealer Wesker (Egon Di Mateo) names him “pitbull” the name seems apt. The kid fights for his bike, his final connection to his AWOL father, with unrelenting zeal. Wesker preys on this fatherless child, inviting him to video games and soda at his apartment and soon devises a scheme that will harness this child’s peculiar energy. It’s an energy and drive familiar to many who are preyed on to enter gangs at young ages. The purpose in Cyril to impress a male figure in his life is so strong, it transcends criminal activity. He does not even care for a cut of the take from Wesker, telling him he’s only doing it for him because he told him to do it.

The boy is in deep pain, which comes out in equal parts aggression and aloofness, when it’s not focused on impressing Wesker or during the quiet bliss in the all too brief company of his actual father. On the receiving end of most of this misguided aggression is the boy’s foster mother, the hairdresser Samantha (Cécile De France). She hesitantly agrees to take Cyril in after helping the boy find his missing bike at the start of the film. He imposes himself on her, asking if she might see him on weekends. She cannot seem to help herself from saying “no.” She even helps Cyril track down his father, who only sees the boy as a burden he does not want. The film is as much about this woman’s courage to step in when the boy’s father decides to take the easy way out to “start over.”

Though the Kid With a Bike is the Dardennes’ tightest film, I have not seen them ever compromise their style for a pat ending. Though the boy seems to find some kind of peace at the film’s end, the Dardennes do not hold back throwing a monkey wrench into the story with a powerful finale that leaves the viewer wondering. The open-endedness of their films is also key to their style defined by their lo-fi cinematic style. The rawness of their movies seek to capture the sensation of true-life experience. Just as life goes on after one completes a phase in growth (however big or small that experience might feel), thus it goes on after the final fade to black in a Dardenne film. Just as you never know what might happen next with every moment in life, you never get luxuriated with the promise of a tidy ending in a Dardenne film. Life goes on and who knows what is next? Bring on another Dardenne film.

Hans Morgenstern

The Kid With a Bike is not rated, runs 87 min. and is in French with English subtitles. It opens in Miami Beach Friday, Apr. 6, at 6:45 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It will play a series of dates as part of the theater’s on-going series “Les Freres Dardennes.” The series also includes one-night-only screenings of the above mentioned Rosetta (Thursday, March 29, at 8 p.m.) and L’Enfant, which also stars Jérémie Renier (Thursday, April 5, at 8 p.m.). The Kid With a Bike also opens in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, Friday, Apr. 6, at 7 p.m. and to the north, in Broward County, at the Cinema Paradiso, also on Apr. 6, but at 6 p.m.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I caught Bullhead (Rundskop) at a preview screening ahead of its loss to A Separation at the Oscars® last weekend. I can see how this Belgian film would interest the Academy but not win the award. It is a straight-forward if dreary film that opens with a voice over grumbling about becoming “fucked” for life after a wicked turn of events during childhood. The tragic finality of the statements by this ambiguous voice will reverberate throughout the film, as one domino after another collides to its hopeless ending, as promised by the narrator, who turns out to be the beefy lug Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts).

But before you can form any sympathy for Jacky, he is established as one mean sonofabitch. We meet him in physical form as he intimidates an elderly farmer in front of a threshing machine. As he warns the farmer to only buy his bulls from his father, Jacky pokes and prods the old man ever closer to the bin of the machine with the wheeled blades hovering above. Director/writer Michael R. Roskam proves he knows how to ratchet up the tension with a setpiece early in the film.

Jacky seems like a ‘roided out loose cannon with hair trigger nerves. It’s no wonder because he shoots up steroids as if it were heroine. After shooting up, he boxes at the air and snorts like the pumped beef raised by his family, who unabashedly use black market growth hormones to thicken up the animals. Just as soon as the viewer might figure to have judged Jacky as unlikable, the film will soon offer another side to him that will constantly test the limits of how much one could sympathize for this man.

During a meeting with a shady group of gangsters at a racetrack, the pumped up and nervous Jacky seems to feel like an unstable liability when Diederik “Ricky” Maes (Jeroen Perceval), a man from his past, appears among the men. The tension is vivid and unpredictable. The scenes ride along on this heavy air and culminate after Jacky turns down a visit to a brothel following the meeting. The film then flashes back 20 years into the past when Jacky was a waifish little boy. Though they cannot be more than eight years of age, Jacky and Ricky are already wondering aloud about the mystery of women and exactly how coupling with them works. When they spy Bruno, the mentally unstable son of a business associate of Jacky’s father, passing out porn magazines to a group of kids, Bruno chases after Jacky and Ricky. Bruno takes down little Jacky, and after one of the most harrowing moments of kid-on-kid abuse ever conceived in cinema, much is illuminated in what Jacky has become.

After establishing Jacky as someone you might feel no concern for, just another thug in a gangster flick, the film grows a tentacle of complexity that refuses to stop lingering over the unfolding events. When Jacky is introduced to other criminals as “our buffoon,” one could almost feel pity for this man. As the film progresses, however, the complexity of his tragic past becomes a constant echo on devolving morally questionable events, as more people from his past reemerge. Bullhead winds up feeling like an endurance test in moral ambiguity suited for those looking for something more than a fun night with popcorn, soda and a movie. This is grim, pathetic stuff.

However, Bullhead is not a roller coaster gangster flick. In fact, the film seems to drag when it turns its focus away from Jacky and to the machinations of fate closing in on him, be it spying cops or double-dealing gangsters. The presence of the sullen Schoenaerts on the screen adds the spark of electricity to the proceedings that elicit both tension and pathos. The actor brings out a humanity to Jacky that would otherwise feel difficult to swallow from many others. Though he seems doomed from the start, Jacky also feels like the greatest thing at stake at the heart of Bullhead‘s story, as the film seems to hurtle toward an inevitable, if slightly over-the-top, ending. Roskam stumbles to think he needs to inflate the melodrama with slow motion and sound effects any more than the tragic circumstances of this fellow dictate. Behind this beastly man there seems to be the last glowing ember of a soul hoping for love in a world that doesn’t bother to pause for a moment to consider his soul.

The story alone is a journey of hopeless gloom. The color palette of blacks, grays and browns illustrated the dreary mood appropriately. Though lush and reeking of old European quaintness, the sets offer little to brighten the heavy mood. Bullhead offers a twisty character study stemming from some twisted circumstances of fate, and that’s heavy enough.

Hans Morgenstern

Bullhead is rated R, runs 124 min. and is French and Dutch with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida Thursday, Mar. 1, at 8 p.m., at O Cinema in Miami. It opens wider, Friday, Mar. 2, at 6:40 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and then the following day at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, on the University of Miami campus, at 6:45 p.m. and further north, in Broward County, at 8:45 p.m. and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. Finally, if you are outside South Florida, the film’s national screening dates can be found here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Tonight, one day ahead of its commercial release in my area (Miami), the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema will host a preview screening of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, a film focused on one of France’s most influential modern musicians: Serge Gainsbourg. I did not have an opportunity to watch a preview screener in time to review the film due to a mailing issue, but I was delighted to learn— as with Mozart’s Sister— the Cosford is making a special event out of this film. One day before its official debut, the university art house will host a special screening with an introduction by Lauren “Lolo” Reskin, the owner of Sweat Records and a long-time local DJ (since the age of 16, as an unpaid volunteer at Miami-Dade College’s campus radio station WDGR).

So I called her up to talk Gainsbourg, whose music would gain worldwide notoriety only just after his death in 1991. She said she first heard Gainsbourg’s music, about five years after that, once buzz had built up during the “lounge” scene of the early to mid nineties, which celebrated Gainsbourg among other sixties-era pop pioneers who were just ahead of their time. “I was in high school,” she said via phone. “I was either a sophomore or a junior. I was volunteering at Miami-Dade’s radio station, WDJR. It was around the time Philips had released Du Jazz Dans De Ravin, Comic Strip and Couleur Café. There was  a sampler that had three tracks from each album, and I was just hooked, and I knew it influenced a lot of stuff I liked like Stereolab, Broadcast and I think Air was starting to release stuff around then.”

During the brief telephone conversation, the self-described “music nerd” revealed an understanding of the wide-ranging influence of Gainsbourg, and already showed an eagerness to share her love for this talent. “I’m not an artist myself, but clearly his legacy is going to live on forever in music,” Reskin said. “Everyone from Beck to Bowie has cited him as an influence. For me, he’s just a really important figure.”

As the resident DJ at the local Miami hipster club Vagabond and music store owner, it makes sense that Reskin understands the flow of musical influence. But her sense of high regard for Gainsbourg lies no further than the façade that decorates her shop in North Miami. “Sweat got him on wall. We sell his stuff regularly,” she said. “Fans of his are still coming in, and they are surprised to see him there— in Miami.”

So, of course, Reskin is excited about introducing this movie, which, according to what I have read, is something more than a biopic. It is the feature debut of famed French comic book artist Joann Sfar. In the press notes, he notes that he moved to Paris from his native Nice with the desire to work with Gainsbourg on a graphic novel based on one of Gainsbourg’s novels. Just after making the move, Gainsbourg died of a heart attack. Though that working relationship never happened, Sfar notes Gainsbourg (who first aspired to be a painter before falling back on his talents as a musician) had an unshakable influence in the stories of his comic books, including, he notes, the Rabbi’s Cat, Pascin and Klezmer. Expect some surreal, artistic leaps away from the mortal realm and into something much more expressionistic. “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is not a historical or anecdotal film,” Sfar notes in his statement. “It aspires to recount a modern myth because the figure of Gainsbourg is radically modern … I wanted to create something more like a Russian fable, a modern legend.”

Starring at the center of the movie is Eric Elmosnino who won a best actor César in France last year for his portrayal of the master. During the film’s festival run that same year, he also captured the best actor award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Besides the accolades, still images also prove Elmosnino has an uncanny resemblance to exploit, a quality both Reskin and agreed upon.

Reskin also echoes my own feelings of high hopes for such a film. “I have not seen the film yet, so I hope [the director] does justice to the multi-facted life he had. He painted, he produced other artists, and his love life, with Bardot and Birkin, is a huge facet of his life.”

Finally, here’s a look at the trailer:

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life has not been rated and premieres in South Florida Thursday, Nov. 3, at 7:30pm at UM’s Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables featuring a special introduction by Lauren “Lolo” Reskin and followed by a post-screening reception celebrating Gainsbourg’s legacy and music after the film. The film continues a screening run until Nov. 6 and also opens Friday, Nov. 4, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, at 6 p.m. and plays through Nov. 9. Both are digital presentations.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)