Whew!

SPOILER ALERT.  The following discussion reveals most of the plot and the ending of the Dardenne brothers movie, The Kid with a Bike.

As the opening credits roll across the screen, we hear the sounds of boys playing and balls being kicked.  We realize that the sounds are outside when we see a boy of 11 or 12 at an office desk holding a phone receiver tightly and listening intently.  A young man tries to get the boy to hang up, calling him “Cyril.”  Cyril won’t hang up. When he says that the man dialed the wrong number, the man lets Cyril dial, but insists that they put the call on speaker.  We hear the same out-of-service message that Cyril has been listening to, over and over.  Defeated, Cyril insists that they call the building superintendent again.  They do, and Cyril is told again that his father has moved out of their apartment with no forwarding address.  Cyril tells the super that his father would have brought him his bike if he had moved.  When the man in the room tells Cyril that’s enough, Cyril makes a break out of the room, out of the building, out of the play yard, over a fence and across a large field.  The first man calls to another to catch Cyril.  The two men eventually catch up with Cyril as he attempts to scale an even taller fence.  They pull him down and think they’ve calmed him down until he bolts again.  They catch him quickly, but he starts kicking their ankles, as they stretch his arms out between them to stay out of range of his kicks.

As Cyril struggles to break away from the two men, who are trying to grab his legs, music begins: three simple, ascending chords with violins playing slowly con sordino, with mutes on the strings. Violas and double bass complete the chords.  When the scene changes to Cyril sleeping, we hear three more rising chords, with the strings now joined by flute, A-clarinet, and bassoon, all descending then in a transition to three resolving chords.

You don’t need to recognize these three measures from the second movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto to feel their simple rise and resolution.  If you are familiar with the piece, you remember their quiet after the storm of the first movement.

The Dardenne brothers hardly use background music in their films, relying instead on the sounds of the city in which most of their stories take place, particularly the ever-present noise of traffic.  The Kid with a Bike is no exception.  In this film, these three measures from Beethoven are the only music, and they occur only four times.  The first three times happen after moments of Cyril’s agony over his abandonment by his father.  I use the word “agony” deliberately to recall its origins in struggle.  These three measures also play during the final scene where they transition into Alfred Brendel playing the whole movement during the closing credits.

The scene of Cyril sleeping while the music plays shifts to Cyril walking with other boys into a schoolyard.  He slips away without being noticed and finds a bus to his old neighborhood.  When the counselors from the home finally have him cornered in the waiting room of a doctor’s office on the first floor of his old apartment building, he crashes into the arms of a woman, knocking her to the floor along with her chair.  This is how Cyril meets Samantha, a hairdresser who finds Cyril’s bike the next day and then agrees to let him come stay with her on weekends.

Samantha tracks down Cyril’s father and sets up a meeting, to which the father does not show.  Samantha and Cyril find the restaurant where the father is working as a cook.  It is closed and he is preparing the kitchen for the day, listening to loud pop music.  After much knocking, they get his attention.  At the end of Cyril’s short visit with his evasive father, he talks separately to Samantha and tells her to tell Cyril not to come back.  Before driving away, Samantha asks Cyril what his father has told him.  Cyril says that his father promised to call.  Samantha takes Cyril back to the restaurant.  After more banging on the window, the father comes to the door.  Samantha says you tell him.  Cyril’s father tells him not to come back.  Cyril asks if that means his father won’t call.  No, he won’t call, and Cyril’s father shuts the door.

On the way back in the car, Samantha keeps looking over at Cyril’s rigid, gloomy face.  When she finally reaches over to comfort him, Cyril pushes her away and turns his head against the door.  Then, Cyril starts tearing at his face with his nails and banging his head against the door.  Samantha has to pull over and wrap him in her arms to stop Cyril from hurting himself.  She holds him and says it’s all right.  Again, the first measure of Beethoven begins.  And again the second two measures accompany a more peaceful scene, with Cyril happily riding his bike along city streets.  He’s taking some groceries in a plastic bag on his handlebars back to Samantha’s.

We hear the music a third time after Cyril has mugged a newspaper vendor and brought the money he’s stolen to his father, who won’t take it and who again tells Cyril never to come back.  In order to get to the back of the restaurant, Cyril had scaled a high stone wall.  His father puts him back over the wall.  Cyril stares at the top of the wall and then wheels his bike down the alley as the first measure plays. The other two measures accompany Cyril as he rides his bike through the city back to Samantha.

Manohla Dargis calls the brief excerpt from Beethoven “soaring.”  Not at all.   Luc Dardenne says the music “adds … something of the tenderness that is missing from Cyril’s life.” (Billson)  The music is for us. Cyril doesn’t hear it.  What the music does is to produce in the audience the effect of bodily peace that Cyril feels when he’s sleeping, when Samantha embraces him, and when he is riding his bike back to Samantha, knowing she will take him back regardless of his hitting and biting her.  Moments of whew! among moments of attack (now!) and when?

Because it also hovers, “always arrested in its motion,” the music lends “the film an atmosphere of quiet tension.” (Higgins)  The effect of the music reminds me most of the feeling of relief one has after a migraine lets up.  The physical pain gives way to a brief surge of what feels like dopamine, similar to the feeling after an exercise workout.  The muscles of the body are still somewhat tense from the strain of the migraine.  In my case, I’m still feeling nauseous, but the comfort that the banging in my head has stopped gives me some peace.  In fact, scientists have identified “certain dopamine neurons,” which go into action during and after activities like eating, drinking, and intercourse.  There is also a “brain reward circuitry.”  The extent to which this circuitry is activated correlates positively with “the amount of relief experienced when an acute painful stimulus ends.”  Lumley et al.  947

On an entirely different plain of experience, Dorothee Soelle quotes from the letters of Kim Malthe-Brunn, a member of the Danish resistance who was killed by the Gestapo, after being tortured for four months.  One letter describes his feelings after surviving “torture that rendered him unconscious” the day before.

Immediately afterward I experienced an indescribable feeling of relief, an exultant intoxication of victory ….  It was as if the soul had liberated itself completely from the body ….  When the soul returned once more to the body, it was as if the jubilation of the whole world had been gathered together here.  (Soelle [1975] 82-83)

If you go back and read Delbo’s passage on how she feels after just a bit of water that tasted like rotten leaves, you hear this same expression of bodily relief after extreme pain.   During this relief, while experiencing this comfort, words, thoughts and awareness of the suffering of others return to Delbo the Communist, and soul returns to body for Malthe-Brunn the Christian.  (In this comparison I am trying to present how each might express the same sentiments, just using different language.)

The Kid with a Bike uses three bars of music from Beethoven to convey Cyril’s moments of whew! .Just as these three bars of music embody Cyril’s brief moments of relief, Cyril does not want the pain of abandonment by his father to stay just emotional, psychological.  In the car, he tries to hurt himself physically, scratching at his face and banging his head against the car door.  Earlier, in Samantha’s hairdressing shop, Cyril irritates Samantha by playing with running water in a hair-washing sink, even after Samantha calmly asks him to stop, then comes over to turn off the water herself.  When she tries to shut it off again, he pushes her away.  She asks him what’s wrong a few times before he finally admits that he’s learned that his father really sold his bike to someone else.  In another sub-plot, Cyril may have been susceptible to the wiles of the drug dealer who leads him to do the mugging, and he may have really wanted to get money so his father would have the financial resources to take him back, but the violence and criminality of the mugging also give him ways to embody the pain of having a father who would not take care of him—and to smash a father over the head with a baseball bat.

Soelle analyzed Jesus’ agony in the garden in terms of attack and wait.  She closes her section on Gethsemane with Jesus telling the disciples, “Get up, let us be going.”  (Mark 14:42; Matt. 26:46)  For Soelle, Jesus “has conquered all fear … is a different person … is clear-eyed and awake; he trembles no longer.”  She is so focused, however, on looking back at the suffering that brought Jesus to this point that she misses his next words: “See, my betrayer is at hand.”  Jesus is moving on to his day of torture and death.  He does not grasp for some value in either the pain of his waiting or the whew! that it’s over in the way that Soelle does.  Both are just moments in his suffering, not things to become so attached to that one writes: “The experience that Jesus had in Gethsemane … is the experience of assent.  The cup of suffering becomes the cup of strengthening.”  (Soelle [1975) 86)

Kim Malthe-Braun did not become attached to the moment of whew! expressed in the quote above.  “But the matter ended as it does in the case of so many other opiates: when the intoxication was over, a reaction set in.  I became aware that my hands were trembling.”   (quoted in Soelle [1975) 83)  Yes, The Kid with a Bike ends with a moment of whew! and the same passage from Beethoven.  Cyril is riding his bike away from nearly being killed by the vengeful son of the news vendor as the music plays and the closing credits start.  He may be riding back to Samantha, but he still carries the pain of abandonment by his father and of growing up with that pain in a decaying, once industrial city.  We may feel good when we feel whew! but there are no happy endings.  Not because they’re not happy, they’re just not the end.

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