Sunday, July 24, 2011

I just had to post something today, as the Tour de France ends. And my Dutch-cum-French friend Simon unknowingly obliged by sending a video link to me:  Vive le Tour.  It would appear to have been filmed in 1962, because it mentions an epidemic of "poisoning by bad fish" that occurred that year. But this version of the film was released by Janus in 1966.
     Simon wrote: "If you like the Tour. Sensational documentary about the 1962 edition. Familiar and alien at the same time. Watch the riders stock up on beer in local bars before a climb (at 5 min), or the rider getting stitches on his face on the move (10 min), the vintage advertising trucks, the worries about "le doping", already a hot topic... Voice-over is in French, but the images stand on their own. It's a gem."
     I liked Simon’s moments, and was also surprised by one detail: the newspapers. For those of you who don’t understand the French commentary, those newspapers that spectators hand the riders (at the 17-min mark) are to insulate their bodies in the mountains, where differences in temperature can be extreme, especially given the enormous physical effort.
     And I recognized - with a bit of nostalgia, if truth be told - the era, the France that I discovered on my arrival.  The cars.  The old police uniforms.  The décor, with a spotlight on the phone booths.  The clothes, especially boys in short pants (something you don't see any more).  The old police uniforms.  The product brands. The "kinder, gentler" times when Aspro aspirin was plastered on ambulances
     More than all, it was the exhaustion and pain that struck me. Blood running down the face of one man as he pedals on. The oblivion in the eyes of another who falls, gets back on his bike and rides until he falls again, totally unconscious. Seriously injured racers being strapped to the outside of a helicopter that whisks them off to the hospital. As I said in my previous Tour de France blog, some* men have even died during this race, and it’s amazing that number isn’t greater!

But the ultimately fascinating thing about this 19" documentary is who made it. The opening credits say "as seen by"... and then list five names of famous film people. The first is Jacques Ertaud, a French film director, explorer and sportsman, all three of which he rolled into his documentaries. But Ertaud also filmed fiction, albeit with a social message, such as L’Homme du Picardie, a TV serial about a barge captain that had all of France riveted to the TV screen around dinner time my first year in France. (He also co-directed a film on the Grenoble Winter Olympics with my dear friend JJ Languepin, but that’s another story.) Apparently his contribution here was in cinematography.
     The second name on the list is Ghislain Cloquet, a Belgian director of photography (aka cameraman) who worked with many great directors and won an Oscar of his own for Polanski’s Tess. According to what I was able to ferret out, this is his footage. I love that it not only focuses on the athletes but also on the spectators, lovingly lingering on faces of Breton women in lace head gear at the start.
     The fourth name, for the musical score, is French composer Georges Delerue, called the "Mozart of the cinema". Delerue wrote the music for as many as six films per year from 1952 to 1995. Internationally renowned, he won an Oscar for A Little Romance in addition to an Emmy and three Césars (the French Oscar), plus myriad Oscar, César and Golden Globe nominations. Here he captures the bal musette atmosphere of the event.
     The fifth name on the list is Jean Bobet, a French cyclist - less gifted than his famous older brother Louison. This younger Bobet decided to park his two-wheeler and move on to "bicycle journalism", both as a sports writer and announcer. Which explains why it’s his voice you hear as narrator.
     But the key name on the list has to be the third one: French director Louis Malle, who spent the second half of his career in the United States (Pretty Baby, Atlantic City) and was married to Candice Bergen. In addition to fiction, Malle also filmed documentaries, including the Oscar-winning The Silent World with Jean-Yves Cousteau, where he ruptured both of his eardrums, thus putting an end to his underworld career. This is indeed his movie, because he wrote it and shot it.
     Film reviewer Nathan Southern summed it up well. "Most of all, Malle underscores, with great admiration and astonishment, the grueling physical exhaustion that the race exacts from even the most seasoned riders. Vive le Tour is a worshipful documentary of a sport made by a man who knew it intimately and loved it: next to filmmaking, cycling was Louis Malle's second great lifelong passion."
     In a lighter vein, but still on the subject, I would strongly suggest you go find the animated film, Les Triplettes de Belleville (The Triplets of Belleville in English) by Sylvain Chomet (2002). It’s the story of a young boy who dreams of one day racing in the Tour de France. It has everything: a boy, his dog, his devoted grandmother, bike racing, the Mafia... even a touch of jazz. It’s a masterpiece worthy of Hitchcock!  (And when you do, remember the camion-balai, the van that picks up the stragglers.)

Update:  For the record, the last stage of the Tour de France is always into Paris plus a few laps up and down the Champs-Elysées. This year’s overall winner of the three-week race was Australian Cadel Evans, the first man ever from the Southern Hemisphere to have won it.
     "A few people always believed in me, I believed in me, and here we are today. We did it," Evans told Eurosport. "It's been a real pleasure, this three weeks. The real highlight of it was the last few kilometers of the time trial, I knew we were on the right track, that was incredible."
     I like his blend of pride (me) and humbleness (we). Because winning the Tour de France requires great individual skill and stamina. But it is also a team sport. Any winner will tell you that. No one can win the maillot jaune without a good team behind him.

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