CANNES, France (Reuters) - Boyhood loss and the redeeming power of love stirred crowds at Cannes with "The Kid With a Bike," a film about a boy on a desperate search for his father by festival favorites Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
The Belgian directors, brothers who have won the top Palme d'Or prize at the Cannes film festival twice before, looked well-placed in the competition lineup this year as the audience broke out in lengthy applause at the end of a screening on Saturday evening.
Shot in an anonymous Belgian city, "The Kid With a Bike" tells the story of Cyril, a feisty red-headed boy of 12 who breaks free from his orphanage to find the father who left him there with a promise to come back for him a month later.
As Cyril pedals furiously around suburban Belgium on his bicycle, refusing to accept that his father has lied, he is taken into the care of Samantha, a childless hairdresser played by Belgian actress Cecile de France.
"We could have called the film a modern fairy tale ... a Pinocchio or Red Riding Hood who gets lost and has to go through certain trials," said Jean-Pierre Dardenne. "He has to lose the illusion that his father still wants to see him."
Subtle and understated, the Dardennes' film brings together some of the ingredients that made their two previous winners -- "Rosetta" in 1999 and "L'Enfant" in 2005" -- popular with a Cannes jury: realism, emotional complexity and no easy endings.
"It's sort of a love story, about the love of a woman who is able to overcome the violence and anger of this boy," said Luc Dardenne.
CHILDHOOD TRAUMA CAPTIVATES The Dardenne brothers' movie falls in line with a series of films in competition at Cannes that have focused, unflinchingly, on childhood trauma and the horror of adults who abuse and mistreat children they have stolen from others.
Most unsparing in this category was "Michael," an Austrian movie by debut director Markus Schleinzer that follows a kidnapped boy of 10 during the final weeks of his captivity at the hands of a perverted and sadistic insurance salesman who keeps him locked in a basement.
With its unrelenting tension, lack of musical score and devastating subject matter, "Michael" has drawn early plaudits from some critics at the Riviera festival -- but may prove challenging for conventional audiences elsewhere.
Testifying to the film's divisive nature, part of the audience jeered loudly when the credits rolled -- in spite of Schleinzer sitting, in full tuxedo garb, in the audience.
Earlier in the competition, which runs May 11-22, French director Maiwenn Le Besco took on the subject of child abuse from the vantage of a hard-bitten team of police officers hunting for pedophiles, often at the expense of their private lives.