Dardennes’ brighter new world

What a weird world. You wake up one morning and Belgium’s Dardenne brothers have turned into Dickens’s Cheeryble brothers. Is it in honour of a feelgood literary bicentenary that The Kid with a Bike, a strange but appealing film from the makers of Rosetta and The Child, is so Dickensian? So like a fairy tale, with social grit tucked inside its gleaming oyster-shell.

At Cannes the Dardennes, long-time Côte d’Azur favourites, were pipped to a third Golden Palm by Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, another fairy tale (with pantheistic philosophical pretensions). The Kid with a Bike won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize, shared with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, in its way a third fairy tale. Are childhood and elemental storytelling re-conquering the world? Is humanity telling itself that realism is a dead end and the time has come to magick it up and open it out?

The dour provincial-industrial backdrop of previous Dardenne films has been whisked away. Here it is bright summer. Cyril (superbly played by newcomer Thomas Doret, alert, prickly, button-bright) is a blond urchin and virtual orphan who wears red and black clothes and rides a red and black bike: a kind of knightly heraldry. Pining for his good-for-nothing runaway dad, he runs or bikes into hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France of Hereafter, the first “star” to grace a Dardenne movie) who takes him under her near-visibly angelic wings. For a complementary cross-plot, definitely Dickensian, we have Wes (Egon De Mateo), a motormouthed young thug – an artful dodger – who tries to coax Cyril into his gang of thieves.

What happened to austere Bressonian complexity? That is what we are usually promised on the Dardenne can. But the new film is no baby food. It simplifies its flavours while also making them vivid, beguiling, hyper-real. Cyril’s search for a father makes him a prey to unworthy dad figures, whether it is wheedling Wes or, in a brief appearance, the boy’s actual father (Dardennes regular Jérémie Renier), who repudiates him a second time. Thereafter The Kid with a Bike has some of the tangled, schematic, involving fascination of a board game: one traversed by real people but presenting us with a world that bit more fabulous, more colourful, more conspiratorial in its imaginative interaction between maker and players.

This Is Not a Film (opening in the UK on March 30) earns four stars for filmic achievement and six for bravery, averaging out at five. Jafar Panahi is a major Iranian film-maker (The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold) now condemned to a six-year jail sentence and under a 20-year ban from film-making. That is what despotic governments do to artists who protest against despotic government.

This film or “not-film” – which was smuggled into Cannes last year on a flash-drive hidden in a cake – is a journal of Panahi’s days under house arrest as he awaits his verdict. Banned from wielding a camera, he persuades friend and fellow director Mojtab Mirtahmasb to position one on his kitchen table as he talks. Later, Panahi is filmed as he starts acting out a recent banned screenplay. Finally the not-film becomes not-form, a liberated, humanising bricolage of serendipitous incident: the prowling pet iguana Igi (as scene-stealing as Uggi the dog in The Artist), phone calls to lawyer or family, fireworks seen from a balcony, finally a young apartment-block neighbour whom the director joins on a trash-collecting tour. This tour ends on the ground floor, where the view of blazing fires outside the gates may be pyrotechnics gone pistol-happy but also seem threateningly, emblematically apocalyptic.

Should we call this great cinema? Perhaps not. We don’t want Panahi’s sentence extended for further crimes of genius. But it is 75 minutes of powerful and touching insight into the helplessness of being a citizen in a country that respects none of the citizenly rights and virtues: those that relate to art, human dignity and freedom of speech, movement and ideas.

The latest champagne bottle has been smashed against the latest Hollywood super-franchise. The Hunger Games creaks, groans and slides down the slipway onto its ocean-screen. Author Suzanne Collins’s bestseller-turned-movie will sail, if successful, for at least one further voyage. The sequel promise – or threat – is umistakable in the last scene.

Luxury cruiser or ship of fools? For me, floating lunatic asylum. In a post-apocalyptic North America that seems like a parody of ancient Rome, 24 teenagers are herded into a fight-or-die arena the size of Central Park. This is a cyclical ritual whose raison d’être is barely explained, but whose multiple giant screens allow evil leader Donald Sutherland and the crowds to look on. The heroine (Jennifer Lawrence) is a doughty youngster with hunting skills from hillbillyish District 12.

Collins’s book has apparently been read by children and teenagers. Are they trainee psychopaths? The violent deaths are chucked around like dice, clacking away as the competitors are counted off until – surprise – Ms Lawrence seems the likeliest victor-survivor. The ruling class, whose women wear gaudy makeup and what seem futuristic Vivienne Westwood knockoffs, gloat at the slaughter from afar. Two television commentators in outré wigs (Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones) prattle away, a neo-Roman Statler and Waldorf. The whole thing is like TV’s Big Brother projected into the future by a demented Classics student: so terrible it might, with antiquity, become a camp masterpiece.

Wild Bill, modest and British, is more discriminatingly crackpot. Directed and co-written by Dexter Fletcher, who once played charismatic oiks for Alan Parker, Derek Jarman and Guy Ritchie, it is the week’s second piece of mod Dickensiana. Feckless convict Bill (Charlie Creed-Miles) emerges from eight years’ jail to find a social worker swarming over his house, insisting he become a responsible dad to sullen teenager Dean (Will Poulter, eerily resembling the Dardennes’ Thomas Doret) and brother-of-11 Jimmy (Sammy Williams).

Fletcher and co-writer Danny King’s script is dolefully droll. “The usual? Two pints, 10 grams and a punch-up?”, Bill is asked by his local barman. Dean meanwhile is being chivvied by his foreman on the Olympics building site – “Go on, grab some stuff, build us a velodrome” – while Jimmy is being mentored in petty theft by cronies of the neighbourhood Mr Big (Andy Serkis). All too much for Bill, or is it? Fletcher has fashioned a deft, likeable addition to a crowded genre, the cockney comedy thriller. It will be good to see how he fares when he moves on.

Will climate change drown the Maldives? Jon Shenk’s documentary The Island President (UK from March 30) is another awful warning about awful warming. The country’s 2,000 islands have just recovered from the reign of Maumoon Gayoum: torture, death, repression. Now, we learn, they will begin vanishing into the tourist-friendly azure ocean. New president Mohamed Nasheed is the answer to everyone’s prayers – a former freedom fighter with film-star looks and a gift for speechifying at climate conferences – but did everyone start praying too late? Absorbing. Alerting.

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