With the discourse of sport on television so settled – linear narrative, repeats of key moments, a focus on stars, endless expert analysis, real-time on-screen information graphics – and the few attempts to step outside such confines usually producing something that might just get a 2.2 at a mid-range film school, Pour un Maillot Jaune stands as not merely the best documentary about cycling, but the best documentary about sport. It is an astonishing piece of work that improves on every viewing – from my first sighting of it on Channel Four in the mid-80s to its DVD giveaway with a Cycle Sport subscription in the 90s, to its posting on youtube in 2009.
Filmed (and the film is so obvious the slippery brown stuff and not even video, never mind digital recording – at times, you can almost hear it clicking through the camera) in black and white and colour, with music, noises and silence as its soundtrack, the 1965 Tour is captured in a series of short sequences, packed with detail. Here’s a puffed-up local maire, cutting the ribbon to start a stage, milking his moment in the limelight while the riders lean on their bikes, bored. There’s a priest blessing the peloton in a scene, like so many others, that is so very, very French. And here’s a Johnny Hallyday wannabe entertaining the locals late at night with the town en fete after the arrival of the Tour.
These colour scenes are so densely populated and come at the viewer at such a pace, that the film grows into a mosaic of images, each complete in and of itself, but also forming a synthetic whole. One feels inside the chaos of the Tour, carried away in its carnivalesque caravan, catching a cough as Gitane smoke curls on the breeze.
As if that wasn’t enough, the film also captures the lot of the men on the road. On motorbikes, photographers balance precariously to get their shots while others drift off to sleep, heads resting on the backs of their drivers. Under a fierce sun, an official leaps from his car to immerse himself in the cool, cool water of a roadside canal, before racing back behind his huge 60s steering wheel as the peloton cruises past. Journalists interview riders and babble into mics for the benefit of radio listeners – noise everywhere.
The riders are almost incidental in this circus, but not quite. They tick over on the flat roads along the seaside near Cannes, suffer on what looks like an ascent of the Galibier, stop to fill bidons at village square fountains and fall from the top of a mountain pass to the valley at terrifying speeds. Unhelmeted, gaunt and with haircuts that Elvis would recognise from his days as a GI, they look more like James Dean style film stars than sportsmen. None are identified, but it’s easy to spot the likes of Tom Simpson, Raymond Poulidor and race winner, Felice Gimondi and those timeless team jerseys – Peugeot, Pelforth, Kas, Mercier, Ford and Molteni.
Ultimately, the real stars of the show are director Claude Lelouch and editor Claude Barrois. Lelouch finds unique angles to reveal the terrible beauty of the Tour. He contrasts the speed of the race with the heavy, heated air of high summer in rural France. He portrays the intimacy of the relationship of rider and soigneur. He shows us the great physical pain of a rider on the limit and the greater mental pain of the rider past the limit and in the broom wagon.
More than any other sport, cycling has the character of performance art, a rolling exhibition in praise of man’s capacity to tame his environment and the environment’s capacity to hit back. Pour un Maillot Jaune shows more of the Tour in 30 minutes than you will see in three weeks this summer – despite television’s superb coverage. It really is that good.
(This review will also be published at Made Good.)