Little actors play formidable characters
THE appeal of child actors is deceptively straightforward: They embody innocence or the shock of its loss. But the danger of overacting is ever present, as is the possibility that a child expected to act naturally may seem more stilted than an adult. Audiences can be sensitive about children cast in fraught situations and suspicious of sentimental ploys, no matter how noble the directorial intent.
Films with serious-minded preoccupations and a need for challenging performances might seem the most vulnerable to such hazards. And yet many children have left indelible impressions in art-house classics from The 400 Blows and The Bicycle Thief to the countryside dramas of Abbas Kiarostami. The youth of the actors, often nonprofessionals, combined with their characters’ outsize plights tend to win the audience’s sympathies, even as the stories address experiences beyond the ken of the performers.
But for directors and actors, what are the attractions and challenges of films like The Kid With a Bike, releasing soon, about an orphan obsessed with re-establishing contact with his father; or Monsieur Lazhar, opening on April 13, about students dealing with their teacher’s death? As the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, directors of The Kid With a Bike, see it, young actors bring a thrilling element of the unknown. Jean-Pierre, speaking from the Dardennes’ office in Liege, Belgium, said: “When a child without acting experience is on set – and this is not meant in any kind of derogatory way – he brings a presence like an animal, a cat.
He is there.” The Dardennes, Cannes-honoured high priests of realism, have made several films centring on parent-child relationships, beginning in 1996 with La Promesse, featuring an untested Jeremie Renier.
For the kid, Cyril, of the aptly named Kid With a Bike, the Dardennes cast the 13- year-old Thomas Doret. Preparation was crucial – 45 days of rehearsal, in this case – and it helped that Doret was a fast learner with good instincts. “You had to give enough but not lay it on too thick,” he said from his home in Liege, recalling a demanding scene in which Cyril apologises to his foster mom (Cecile De France).
For younger child actors it can seem amazing that they are performing at all.
One of the best examples remains the star of the 1996 French drama Ponette: Victoire Thivisol, at all of 4, played the title role, a girl whose mother dies in a car crash. This moonlighting kindergartener won a prize at the Venice Film Festival, even as her director, Jacques Doillon, fended off criticism by noting that a child therapist was on set. In practice the challenges were rather basic.
“I didn’t know how to read,” Thivisol, 20, said by phone from Paris, remembering the experience as pleasant. (For one thing, she said, it was “way better than school.”) “I had someone who was coaching me, saying the text out loud, and that was the way I learned my lines.” Footage from the set shows her switching in and out of character, startlingly aware of what she’s doing.
Thivisol now studies acting in Paris and marvels at her precocious feat.
“That’s what I’m working to get back – the kid,” she said. “When you are acting as a kid, you just do the thing. Now you start thinking about, ‘OK, if I do it this, the spectator will perceive it like that,’ and you get a mess in your head. You have to work. I wish I could act like I was on Ponette.” Then there is the natural charisma of child performers, often as distracting as it is beneficial.
The Canadian director Philippe Falardeau took special care not to be distracted by cuteness when casting the youngsters who play sixth-graders in Monsieur Lazhar, which was nominated for the Oscar for best foreign-language film this year. “I take a lot of time in the audition process,” said Falardeau, who built on his experience directing a 10-yearold in It’s Not Me, I Swear! (2008). “I like to close my eyes and listen to them,” he said, explaining that he wanted to “believe that it’s a real kid talking in a real situation.” The children in Monsieur Lazhar, like those in Ponette, bear heavy emotional burdens. Within the first few minutes two students witness the aftermath of a teacher’s suicide.
Arguably it’s this very gap – between impressionable naivete and the extremity of the story – that gives child performances their power. As audience surrogates they offer an artificially heightened sense of point of view, seeing everything new, with untutored intensity.
Not infrequently experience itself is a central theme. In the annals of child-centred cinema Volker Schloendorff’s Tin Drum, the 1979 adaptation of Guenter Grass’ novel, remains indelible with its portrayal of a boy in postwar Germany. The child’s arrested development and demonic drum playing stand as symbolic reminder of a past that cannot be forgotten.
Reached in Berlin, the Swiss-born actor David Bennent, who at 12 played the boy, remembered how his father, the actor Heinz Bennent, read Grass’ novel to him.
“When I had a question, I asked, and he answered it without any fear,” said Bennent, who is touring Europe in a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. “If you have a very tense parent who hides everything from their kids, who hides the love, or says, ‘Please, not in front of the child,’ then for the child, it becomes very difficult.” Despite the film’s topics Schloendorff preserved “a light rhythm” on the set, Bennent said, nurturing a sense of play in the young actor.
For young would-be stars the experience of working with such formidable talents as Schloendorff, the Dardennes and Doillon opens up creative horizons at an intimidatingly young age.
“I’m not going to mince words: I’d like to work with Spielberg,” Doret said. “I love ET.”