It’s not often you see the Tour de France in the cinema so when a film arrives it can be default viewing for many cycling fans. La Grande Boucle is a newly-released French film and the tale of one man down on his luck who attempts to ride the route of the Tour in a bid to prove he’s worth something.
Sadly it’s a stinker of a film. Watch it if you must but be warned, this is the cinema equivalent of a ride on the indoor trainer, you’ll do it because it’s cycling but it takes mental strength to finish the session.
The premise is simple. The main character François is a cycling fan but down on his luck. He’s fired, is mocked by his son and his wife has just left him, in part frustrated by his holiday plans which revolve around watching the Tour. One day he sees a poster for the Tour de France and decides to ride the route, doing every stage one day ahead of the race. He starts off by himself but word gets out and his courage begins to attract interest, snowballing from a few roadside cheers into media coverage and even sponsors. Soon François’s ride is rivalling the Tour de France and destabilising the pros trying to make a living.
Along the way there are appearances from Bernard Hinault and Laurent Jalabert and plenty of footage from the actual Tour de France with sweeping helicopter shots of the mountains which are impressive on TV but breathtaking in the cinema… although there’s a feel the film only got the rights to use the images in return for a giant publicity bonanza for the race. These add a sense of realism to the film, splicing last summer’s race into the fictional tale of François.
François is played by Clovis Cornillac who does a good job. Unlike other acting roles which need an accent and make-up, Cornillac must play the role of a competent cyclist which requires fitness, pedalling technique and more. Apparently he’s not been a keen rider but has learned to pedal, he’s not wobbling over the road (unless for comic effect) nor churning an inappropriate gear. A problem for many films like this is the expert eye, a trained marksman might criticise how an action hero holds a pistol; a historian will point out inconsistencies in period drama. But the cycling aspect is not too bad.
The bad news is that the film is totally predictable. A ordinary man suffers a setback and sets out on a big task to prove his self-worth, overcoming obstacles and ridicule on the road to redemption. Fame, family and a happy ending awaits. I knew this before watching but the plot line was as linear as a Roman road in Italy. At one point during the screening I found myself wondering if I could ask the cinema for a refund, going as far to imagine the conversation. “Look, I know there were some production costs involved, so I’m not looking for a full refund but what about €10 in compensation?”
French cinema is blessed with a great reputation thanks to directors like Jean-Luc Godard or Henri-Georges Clouzot, atypical performances by the likes of Gérard Depardieu and modern films like Amélie, The Artist or Un Prophète have been very succesful. But for every celebrated masterpiece there are thousands of téléfilms, productions shot for TV, the French equivalent of straight to DVD.
La Grande Boucle fits firmly into the pattern of mass production, its Tour theme a hook for the audience but the plot is really a formulaic tale of rejection and redemption. From Hollywood to Bollywood, you get more bad films than good. But La Grande Boucle’s mediocrity is the pure product of the French studio quota system.
It feels bad to be so critical of a film which required a lot of work and one that celebrates the Tour de France. But it’s been slammed by a peloton of professional critics too.
If you’re hunting for French language films on the sport, we can do better. For art, you’ll find Louis Malle’s Vive Le Tour documentary for free on the internet. La Grande Boucle isn’t dissimilar to Je Reste, the story of a couple (one half played by Sophie Marceau) where the husband is an over-keen cyclist, putting training sessions ahead of his family, whether making them follow in the car with sandwiches or rigging up an advanced home trainer in their Parisian flat. It’s predictable too but if anything, more viewable because it’s less overtly about the bike.
But if you want cyclesport comedy then Le Vélo de Ghislain Lambert starring Belgian Benoît Poelvoorde is the winning ticket. Poelvoorde is a good comedian with sharp timing and if he wobbles on the bike it’s for comic effect. The film is amusing although stupidly so at times – cue flying over the handlebars into the ditch – but a good take on 1970s cycling even if it includes inevitable doping scenes, as if a trip to the cinema cannot let you escape the spectre of the syringe. But it’s got many sharp observations that mirror realities from the sport for example mocking Eddy Merckx who built an early altitude chamber in his garage, the troubled role of team managers hungry for results and sponsorship and the excess of amphetamines, a portrayal in film of what Paul Kimmage told in his book Rough Ride.
If François decided to fish the world’s biggest tuna or scale K2 to impress his family then you would not have heard of the film. But because of the link to cycling and the Tour de France this could appear on your radar.
Watch this if you must. But lower your expectations as it’s a bland and formulaic rom-com that exploits the Tour de France as a theme but with little depth.