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2014年8月10日 星期日

The Finishers (De Toutes Nos Forces) (鐵人父子)


It's been quite a while since I saw a film. Last night, I did. I wasn't disappointed. It was The Finishers ("De toutes nos forces", literally, with all our stength), by the French director Nils Tavernier (son of Bertrand Tavernier, film actor, director, producer). It's a simple story, based on a real-life tale of incredible courage and persistence of a father-and-handicapped-son team of the Hoyt family  of Holland, Massachusetts, USA in which the pair entered and successfully completed a triathlon of running, biking and swimming.
When the film opens, we see from afar the shores of coastal city. On what appears a beach, there's an indistinguishable mass of black dots. The camera zooms in. We discover more than a thousand noisy men and some women, all in bodybugging black wet suits, their face intent. Amidst the mass, we see the face of a teenage boy which appears to be the victim of  cerebral palsy sitting on a black wheelchair. The camera zooms out again. There is total silence. Then all of a sudden, the silence is broken by the explosive sound of the starter gun. People all dash into the water. We see the protagonist, Paul (Jacques Gamblin), a tall, lean, determined man in his late forties with a weather-worn face start lowering the teenager into a red rubber raft. We learn later that the teenager is Julien (Fabien Héraud),Paul's 18 year-old-son,born with congenital cerebral palsy but who somehow manages to survive quite well under the loving and a bit over-anxious care of his hair-dresser mother Claire (Alexandra Lamy), ever anxious that he could not take care of himself. That beach is site of "Ironman", an annual event organized by the French Côte d'azure city Nice in which competitors have to finish a gruelling 140-mile12-16 hour triathlon of swimming, biking and marathon running.

The camera then switches to Paul, doing some welding on a ski tower, suspended in mid-air by steel hooks, tackles and ropes. In the background is the magnificent snow capped French Alps around Nice. In the next shot, we find Julien in his bedroom, sitting on his electronically driven wheelchair, behind a big powerful telescope, scanning his neighboring for things of interest. He focuses on the window of a house nearby. There's a nude woman. Then Sergio (Xavier Mathieu), another teenage friend with a mild degree of palsy joins him. He tells Claire that he wants to go out with Julien to the physiotherapy centre earlier than 11 a.m. the following morning. Claire says no. Sergio tries to argue but she remains adamant. In typical French fashion, Sergio lifts his head, shaking it, saying "bah..."  hands in the air.Then we see a helicopter landing in the lawn in front of their house. Paul descends. We see Julien and his sister in their verandah, looking on, all eagerness and pride.  

In the next scene, we see Paul walking disconsolately into a local bar. His friend tries to engage him in conversation about a newspaper article saying that 65% of Frenchmen were not happy with their sex life. He's goes to his own table. His friend moves over, trying to catch his attention. He's not interested. He heads home. He tells Claire that it's official. He's laid off. He doesn't want dinner. He enters his room, closing the door behind him. Claire looks on, concerned, helpless. She she knows him. She leaves him alone. Ever since Julien was born. Paul, a former champion "Ironman", ceased joining any further competitions. He simply ignores Julien. For him, Julien might as well not have been born. He keeps whatever he's thinking of to himself, close as a clam.

We next see Claire at the hair salon, talking to a client, an old lady who remarks that she has grown black circles around her eyes. She looks at herself in the mirror and replies that she's always been like that. She just continues working, politely, professionally. She shakes her head but without any conviction. After the lady client is gone, about closing time, her  her colleague also notices that something is bothering Claire and asks if she wants to talk. She is non-commital. Her colleague asks if it's Paul's job loss. She then opens up and tells her that she's worried that Paul is depressed and does not appear to be doing anything and keep to himself. To cheer her up, her colleague fluffs up her hair and asks with a slightly "professional"  tone, how she wants her hair done, as if she were an important client. She breaks into smiles.  

Then the story takes a turn. By accident, his son discovers, in connection with his school research project, an old newspaper cutting in the family garage about his father winning the Nice Ironman a long time ago. He goes on the internet and then discovers that an American with a handicapped child actually successfully completed the competition. This fired his imagination. He's determined that he and his father should do the same. He tells his father. Paul says it's silly. So does his mom. But he would not give up. He begs his Paul. Paul  wouldn't budge, giving him all the reasons why it could not be done. In protest, Julien leaves home on his electronic wheelchair and goes on the pavement at the side of the local highway as far as his wheelchair's battery would allow: the local gas station. This precipitated a mini family crisis. Every one goes out frantically to look for him at every conceivable place. Then the manager at the gas station telephones Paul, who arrives with Sergio to pick him up. But Julien says he hates Paul and doesn't want to talk to him and would only allow Sergio to help him up Paul's van. 

The next day, we see Julien going to the garage looking in at its entrance. He discovers Paul working in the garage building a bicycle with a seat in front. Julien smiles. Together they train, biking, swimming etc. Julien too, in the bath tub, training his hand grip, "left. right, left right....", left right etc" and then moving his legs. It was time for registering for the competition. Julien enters his father and his own name for the adult section, not the section for handicaps. Then there was a thunderclap. His application was rejected. Undeterred but  without telling anyone, Julien took a train with Sergio to the Committee Room for the Ironman competition in Nice, barged right into the middle of their meeting, after having been  told by the receptionist that he needed to have a prior appointment. He simply rammed his electronic wheelchair into his knees and scooted into the meeting room. Next we see him showing his dad a letter of acceptance that the Committee had rethought about the matter. Mom was worried but happy. They kept on training. The result is a foregone conclusion. 

It's appears a simple story. It's not. Not only is it the usual train-hard against what initially looks impossible obstacles, falling down, getting up and finally triumphing, a story of the glory of human determination. The triathlon is not just a test of a man's will power. It's also an odyssey in which a 17-year-long emotional rift between father and son and between husband and wife is finally mended. Through seeing the determination of his teenage son Julien, Paul saw a flicker of his former self. He lifted himself out from his bitter, taciturn, self-pity and becomes again the man whom Claire married 25 years ago: open, resolute and optimistic.  The joy the father and son pair experience together as they fly down the slope in their tricycle, their arms swung wide open after finally conquering a particularly difficult stretch of upward slope on the French Alps, letting out cries of shared triumph reverberating amidst the high hills is truly uplifting. 

There are some magnificent cinematography of the spectacular French Alps and the Mediterranean. The acting of Heraud, Gamblin, Lamy was superb: unexaggerated, natural and convincing.  It shows show cinema should be done. The story tells itself, in images, in some handpicked details of the trivialities of daily life, from a certain distance, without any abuse of close ups of the eyes and face of the characters so that when they are actually used, they impact with explosive power. I like in particular, the scene in which whilst Claire is bathing Julien, Julien suddenly started a "water war" with his mom and the scene where just before his son's 18th birthday, Paul shaved Julien so that he'd look nice at the party the family was throwing for him at a restaurant and afterward lighting up some real fireworks outside the family home perched high up the French Alps. It's an  inspirational sport drama with a difference: done the Gallic way, with the typical French flair for close human observation. In this film Tavernier paid oblique homage to John G Avildsen when he gives us a warm episode of father and son watching "Rocky" in the family room, sharing chips which in his absoption, Paul did not extend his hand holding the basket of chips far enough for the reach of his son. The emotional distance between father and son is so vividly symbolised by that kind of mindless "care" he offers his son. In telling this story, is there not a hint of Tavernier tribute to his own father? Just a thought.