Monday, January 13, 2020

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Days in France' (1968)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

A disclaimer at the beginning of the impressionistic sports documentary 13 Days in France declares that it's not the official film of the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, and it's not hard to see why this movie would be the wrong choice as a sanctioned record of the Olympic games. Produced and co-directed by French New Wave icon Claude Lelouch (along with more than a dozen credited collaborators), 13 Days is an abstract snapshot of the games that's almost entirely devoid of context, with virtually no dialogue and very little diegetic sound. It more closely resembles something like Aquarela or Samsara, documentaries made up of a series of images around a central theme, rather than what you'd expect from a movie about the biggest sporting event in the world.

Considering that I have no interest in sports or the Olympics, this approach generally works for me, although at nearly two hours, the movie does get repetitive and tedious at times. Having at least some sports knowledge would probably help, since there's no explanation of the various events or competitors, and while I eventually spotted a couple of famous athletes via context clues (Jean-Claude Killy and Peggy Fleming, both of whom have songs sung about them on the soundtrack), most of the time I had no idea what was happening in the competitions, or even what many of them were (there's a weird skiing one where you shoot a gun in the middle of it?). Lelouch and his collaborators are just as interested in local color and behind-the-scenes details (including parties and musical performances), though, and the movie is really a feat of editing, as various athletic accomplishments are juxtaposed with mundane activities.

Even when portraying the athletes, the filmmakers focus on the less obvious aspects of the competition. There's a montage of hockey players spitting, and one rapid-fire sequence of a starting pistol indicating the beginning of multiple races that we never see. There are scenes of spectators frolicking in the snow, and one shot of a baby's diaper being changed by the side of a ski slope. Lelouch matches the shots of the Olympic flame being lit with shots of a cameraman's long, dangling cigarette ash. It's playful and also clearly meant to sort of deflate the self-importance of the games, especially in brief shots of newspaper headlines about Vietnam inserted between marching bands and cheering crowds. The point of view is a bit muddled, but the movie is distinctive enough to make it worth watching as cinema, and not just as a recording of sports history.

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