The Tour de France is cycling’s more prestigious event and has by far the largest attendance of any sporting event in the world – 10-15 million – although it is impossible to obtain a precise count of all the roadside spectators. The event, which comprises 21 stages (racing days) over the month of June and typically covers a total length of more than 3500 kilometres that courses through ordinary roads and town streets all over France, has a history going back more than a century. Over this period it has emerged as a unifying cultural phenomenon for the French people to get a feeling for their own countryside and popular culture. Writer-director Louis Malle managed to capture something special about this race with his eighteen-minute documentary, Vive le Tour (1962). Though the film is now almost fifty years old, it still stands as one of the great sports documentaries and as a vivid tribute to this unique event.
Malle was still under thirty when he made the film, but he was already world famous for his vibrant and provocative feature films, Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958) and Zazie dans le Metro (1960). Though Malle is mostly known to world audiences through his lengthy and successful career as a director of fiction films, I think his greatest talent was as a documentary filmmaker.
Little is said in Vive le Tour about the nature of the race or the various strategies associated with the peleton and breakaways, etc. (although one can assume that the French viewing public was quite familiar with the basics of this event). In fact the basic scoring system is not explicated, and famous riders or winners are not identified at all in the film. Instead, Malle concentrates on the gruelling experiences of the cyclists and how it might feel to be one of them in the race. Although the film was made before the advent of lightweight digital video cameras and Steadicams, Malle achieved his subjective effects by managing to get amazingly steady closeup footage at high speed of the riders as they stream down the roads lined with people. This footage highlights one of the striking features of the Tour, which is the close proximity of the spectators to the bicyclists. Many of the people watching the race have the temerity, or cheek, to reach out and actually touch the riders or pat them on the back as they race by. Incredibly, in this age of violent attention-seekers, there are rarely any incidents of spectators causing serious interference or trouble with the race.
There are five interesting activities associated with the racers to which Malle calls our attention in the film, and the progression through this sequence of activities provides the film with its narrative structure. Each of the specific activities involves camera footage that is not normally seen even by viewers of today’s heavily covered event.
- Food and Drink. Given the length of the race and the hot summer conditions, the riders need sustenance and fluid replacement all the time. The support crews hand their team members juice and water bottles as they race by various points along the way. But this refreshment is often not enough, and the riders often make momentary stops at restaurants and raid food and drink (some alcoholic) from the counters of the shopkeepers in order to boost their supplies.
- The Call of Nature. Of course with all this drinking on the run, there are bodily functions to attend to, and the drivers don’t waste much time on this. Some of the cyclist relieve themselves quickly by the roadside, others do it on the run, only slowing down a bit.
- Doping. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is a hot topic these days, but the history of this practice goes way back, well before 1962. The drugs used today may be more sophisticated, but the intentions is the same: take a drug that will enable the body to endure pain and fight off weariness in order to get that extra edge. Malle has some remarkable footage of a rider in this race who is so drugged with some sort of stimulus that he become nauseous and passes out while riding. Malle’s camera follows this unfortunate rider, keeping him in frame, until he finally slows down and crashes by the side of the road.
- Crashes and Pileups. With the riders moving in a pack at high speed, there is always the danger of a massive pileup, and Malle’s camera documents one such episode and the effects of a few others. Serious injuries can and often do ensue, all the more so, because in 1962, the riders did not wear helmets.
- The Mountains. Besides the time-trial sprints and the long-distance courses, there are also stages that involve incredibly strenuous hill climbing through mountainous terrain. The riders must not only be fast and lean, but also strong enough to pump their way up steep mountain roads. Malle’s cameras capture the exertion and pain of the riders as they struggle their way up the hills, sometimes in foggy and rainy conditions. The spectators often take pity on the stragglers in these circumstances and run out to give them extra pushes from behind to help them make it up. This extra support, which is actually illegal, doesn’t effect the race outcome, because the fans are only boosting the tail-end racers who have no chance of winning the event.
Overall, Vive le Tour is a rousing success. Each of the five racing activities covered is interesting and has been carefully filmed. Malle must have had a high shooting ratio to acquire such well-frame footage of race events taking place at such speed. Even if you have watched the Tour de France many times on television and think you have seen it all, you will probably enjoy seeing this film.