Super Frenchie


Self-expression or selfish pursuit?

(2020) Documentary (Greenwich) Matthias Giraud, Joann Giraud, Jesse Hall, Erik Roner, Julian Carr, J.T. Holmes, Josephina Giraud, Robert Giraud, Todd Davis, Denny Dragan, Chad Labass, Stefan Laude, Soren Giraud, Suzanne Montgomery. Directed by Chase Ogden

 

There are some among us who are driven to do things that, on the surface, seem foolhardy if not downright crazy. They jump out of airplanes with only a piece of cloth to keep them from being smashed into human jelly on the unforgiving ground below. They pit themselves against mountains, waves, and whatever else nature might throw at them. And among these, there are some who are driven to push the boundaries even further.

Matthias Giraud is one such. Born in France but currently residing in Oregon, he caught the skiing bug early on family vacations in the French Alps. But it wasn’t until he caught videos of Shane McConkey flying off the mountainsides with a parachute that he found something that truly spoke to him. McConkey became a friend and a mentor and Giraud became one of the best in the world at ski BASEing.

The garrulous Giraud describes the times when he is flying off the edge of a mountain, free of gravity, as the only times he’s truly happy. Driven by a childhood in which he grappled with depression and considered suicide (he talks about his mother Josephine being manipulative and overbearing), he pursued his passions with a vengeance that borders on addiction. But after meeting Joanne, an American woman who seems to understand him better than anyone, he married her and she eventually got pregnant.

Realizing that the presence of a child in his life would change things, Matthias wanted to check off a few of his bucket list items while he could, which included a skiBASE off of one of the peaks he grew up skiing on in France. It was there, three weeks before Joanne was due, that he launched hiself off the cliff and was promptly blown into the side of the mountain, and tumbled down in horrifying fashion.

He was lucky. He survived the fall, albeit with severe injuries. He had to relearn how to walk again, but he was at least home when his wife gave birth to their son Soren. But giving up his passion wasn’t even a question. He would get back to doing what he loved.

And therein lies the issue at the heart of Super Frenchie. It is discussed, but essentially we hear how Joanne understands that this need to skiBASE is part of who Matthias is, and as Matthias goes back to the mountain where he nearly lost his life, he writes a heartfelt letter to his son in case the mountain beats him again and he doesn’t come home. His mother puts the issue succinctly; “I support what he does, but it is a bit selfish.” And there’s the rub. Does the fulfillment of his need for the high that comes with risking his life outweigh his responsibilities to his wife and young son? It bears mentioning that his mentor, McConkey, died skiBASEing in Italy, leaving behind a wife and three-year-old daughter.

This is the central discussion that the film raises but Ogden mainly brushes it aside. I think that the movie would have benefitted from a discussion of how incredibly dangerous what Giraud does, and the human toll it has taken in terms of lives lost. The inventor of the wingsuit that Giraud wears died. The man who invented skiBASEing died. The man who invented BASE jumping also died. Giraud appears to define his manhood by the will to go after his dreams, but is the price worth it? I wonder if McConkey’s daughter thinks so.

The footage that we see of Giraud flying off of mountains is nothing short of spectacular, I’ll grant you that. But it makes me wonder about the generations of starry-eyed kids inspired to take up this dangerous sport to achieve the high that Matthias does, and what price they will ultimately pay.

REASONS TO SEE: Spectacular skiBASEing footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: One has to wonder about whether this is an expression of a massive ego.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Giraud has made a name for himself as being the first to skiBASE off a number of mountains, including the Matterhorn and Mount Hood in Oregon.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now,Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Row8, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Free Solo
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Sweat

Slalom


The ski slopes can be their own kind of prison.

(2020) Sports Drama (Kino Lorber) Noée Abita, Jérémie Renier, Marie Denarnaud, Muriel Combeau, Maira Schmitt, Axel Auriant Blot, Melle Tistounet, Gaspard Couder, Maxence Clément, Victor Senegas, Alice Berger Sabbatel, Catherine Marchal, Fred Epaud, Dominique Thomas, François Godart, Michael Vander-Meiren, François Briaut. Directed by Charléne Favier

 

The relationship between an athlete and their coach is one driven by trust. In recent years, we have heard – to our horror – of youth coaches who have taken advantage of their positions of authority to gain sexual favors from those in their charge. It is not a pretty story.

Lyz Lopez (Abita) is a 15-year-old girl with enormous potential to make the French ski team. Her single mom (Combeau) works far away, leaving her alone to study at an exclusive private school where she is trained by Fred (Renier), a slalom champion who has retired from the sport. Fred is, at first, demanding and autocratic, but soon turns gentle and supportive as the unconfident Lyz starts to win races and, more importantly, believe in herself. The relationship between Lyz and Fred grows closer.

It is cringeworthy when we see Fred touching Lyz in places I would not want my teenage daughter to be touched by her coach; nor would I want to have her grilled about her menstrual cycle, as Fred does to Lyz. But we all know where this is heading; so, too, does Lyz, I believe. And she’s okay with it, at first, as she enjoys the attention of a charismatic, attractive older man but when the house of cards begins to tumble and the inappropriate crosses the line into abuse, it threatens to destroy both coach and athlete.

Although there are scenes of sexuality, this is not a sexy film. As we watch Fred groom his victim for later sexual conquest, we recoil and see Fred, perhaps, as a monster, although there are signs that Fred himself is a wounded soul, even more so than the vulnerable Lyz. This doesn’t excuse his behavior, however.

The movie hinges on the performances of Abita and Renier. It is no surprise that the latter delivers; he is, after all, a veteran of several Dardenne Brothers films and has a history of charismatic performances. However, Abita is a relative newcomer who lit up the screens in Genese and shows that she is likely to be one of the most important actresses in Frances for the next several decades with her performance here. It is subtle, nuanced and rarely goes in for unnecessary histrionics. She is absolutely note-perfect here.

So too is the cinematography; the ski sequences are breathtaking as the camera is right there with Lyz on the slopes, giving the audience a feeling as close as possible to flying down a mountainside without first having to strap on a pair of skis themselves.

The subject matter is handled matter-of-factly and although most will tend to see Fred as a monster (and he is), there is more than one dimension to the character which makes the role somewhat heartbreaking. If you’re looking for a nice, neat, Hollywood resolution at the end of the film, you are likely to be disappointed. What you WILL get, however, is an outstanding, sober and quietly damning look at how easily authority is abused.

REASONS TO SEE: Harrowing and occasionally deeply disturbing. Ski footage puts the viewers on the slopes.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the teen angst material seems forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, nudity, sexuality, and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film (after several shorts and a documentary) by Favier and is based on her own experiences as a young athlete.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Downhill Racer
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Oak Room

Force Majeure (Turist)


There's no business like snow business.

There’s no business like snow business.

(2014) Dramedy (Magnolia) Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Brady Corbet, Jakob Granqvist, Franco Moscon, Malin Dahl. Directed by Ruben Östlund

We never know how we’ll react in any given situation. We imagine, we hope we’ll react with courage and compassion but the truth is there’s a good chance we’ll act to save our own skins rather than someone else’s when push comes to shove. It’s not necessarily a horrible thing but it can cause those around us to reconsider their image of who we are.

Tomas (Kuhnke) and Ebba (Kongsli) are taking a ski vacation in the French Alps with their adorable kids Harry (V. Wettergren) and Vera (C. Wettergren). It’s definitely a much-needed trip; Tomas is a bit of a workaholic whose ear seems permanently glued to his cell phone. This is a chance to let the cares and worries of day to day life melt away and for him to reconnect with his family. Thus far, everything seems to be working.

They’re eating lunch on the terrace of their ski resort one afternoon when an avalanche begins. At first, it’s no cause for alarm. After all, the resort has been purposely setting them off on a regular basis, the days and nights punctuated by soft explosions triggering downfalls of snow to relieve the pressures of an excessive snowfall on the trails. You’d think that they’d be used to it by now.

But the deadly avalanche continues to approach and Ebba begins to feel uneasy. Something is wrong. “Nonsense,” says Tomas full of masculine know-it-all-ness. They’re perfectly safe. Still it gets closer and closer and people begin to nervously rise to their feet. Then as it becomes apparent that it’s not going to stop, the panic begins. People begin to run off the terrace and Ebba goes to grab her children and carry them to safety except they’re too heavy, she can’t lift them and before anything can be done, the avalanche is upon them.

Everything is white. As things come back into focus, Ebba realizes that she and her children are all right. The avalanche must have petered out just before colliding with the resort. All they’d been hit by was the avalanche “smoke,” the fine powder that rises from the surface of the snow. Shaken, the family continues eating their meal, not knowing what else to do.

Everyone’s all right and that’s the important thing, right? But not to Ebba. Her husband abandoned her and her children, leaving them to save himself. He needs to come clean and admit it. Tomas, however, doesn’t see it that way. That’s not how it happened. He refuses to come clean. This becomes stuck in Ebba’s craw. She needs him to own up. She needs to hear him admit that he panicked. She picks at him like a scab.

On the other end, he can’t admit it. It’s just not possible. To do so would be to admit that everything he is as a man is lacking. That he failed to protect his family, one of the most basic instincts that there is in the masculine ego. It’s unthinkable. So the immovable object collides with the unstoppable force and the marriage of Tomas and Ebba suddenly becomes vulnerable.

This is Sweden’s entry into the foreign language film category of the Oscars and quite frankly, it’s a good one. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t end up on the short list when the announcements come out next month. This isn’t a movie you can standardize in a single category. It’s essentially the story of an unraveling marriage depicted in the style of a thriller. As an audience, you’ll feel like you were at a couple’s party and you walked in on them having a vicious argument in the bedroom. If there were Oscars given for the use of awkward silences, this would win hands down.

Kuhnke and Kongsli play their roles with an easy familiarity that mimics that which exists in real couples who have been together for years and now know each other better than they know themselves. There are few surprises in the routines of everyday life and while Ebba feels more than a little neglected, Tomas is completely oblivious that there’s a problem. His ego won’t let him admit to it.

Not that Ebba is a saint. She is a bit of a nag and can be cold and critical. She has a streak of self-centeredness all her own. Her need to validate her point that her husband failed her becomes consuming; looking at the relationship from afar it is clear that both characters would benefit from letting go of the incident but neither one is built that way. As friends get pulled into their escalating competition, it certainly looks like one of them is going to break.

The avalanche sequence is handled with some CGI but mostly practical effects and is one of the film’s highlights. Can’t say the same thing about the ending which is confusing and seems tacked on and unnecessary. In fact, the movie seems a bit long and might have benefitted from more time looking at the family and less at their friends, who are drawn into an argument over how they’d react in a similar situation which leads to bad feelings between them as well. Those darn Swedes.

While the situation is an extraordinary one, kudos to Östlund for keeping the characters real. They react in ways that aren’t necessarily shining examples of forbearance and in doing so channel every one of us. If you can’t relate to Tomas and/or Ebba, you haven’t been alive long enough to appreciate the subtleties of long-term committed relationships or the fallibility of human beings.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling plot handled in a realistic manner. Some fine performances by the leads. Avalanche sequence is nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. Ending is unsatisfying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity as well as sexual situations and some occasional foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The children of Tomas and Ebba in the film are played by a real life brother and sister.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Outdoors
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Wild