From the Eclipse Shelf: Vive le Tour

On Film / Short Takes — Oct 4, 2012

Louis Malle is remembered primarily as a fiction filmmaker, but he had a parallel career as a documentarian. In fact, he got his start in nonfiction: when he was just twenty-three years old, Malle was given the opportunity to collaborate with Jacques Cousteau on the pioneering undersea documentary The Silent World, which would win an Oscar for best documentary as well as the Palme d’Or at Cannes. After this early success, Malle plunged into filmmaking, focusing for the next several years on fiction and making a name for himself with noir (Elevator to the Gallows), erotic drama (The Lovers), and slapstick comedy (Zazie dans le métro). In 1962, he returned to documentary with a short about the Tour de France, the sprightly, vivid Vive le tour. Malle was invigorated by this experience, and it inspired him to continue to make nonfiction works throughout the rest of his career, in between the fiction films he is better known for, including Murmur of the Heart, Atlantic City, and Au revoir les enfants.

Though just eighteen minutes long, Vive le Tour captures the epic experience of this test of human endurance, as well as its furious pace and idiosyncratic personalities. Visually, the film—shot by cinematographers Ghislain Cloquet and Jacques Ertaud—is consistently engaging, taking on multiple perspectives: that of the bicyclists, the spectators on the sidelines, and even the reporters hot on their heels on motorbikes. When the racers are introduced, we see them from a distance on their cycles, looking graceful and almost still, but then Malle shows them whizzing like bullets past a static camera; next, after another cut and with the camera mounted on a bicycle, it’s the world itself that we see going by in a blur. We get a little more intimate with the unnamed contestants in one of the most amusing passages in the film, presented below, which focuses on their brief pit stops, whether for urinating or refueling. Get a load of the way they nearly ransack cafés they pass—talk about bicycle thieves!