Dir: Philippe Harel. France/Belgium. 2001. 115 mins.
A lively mock biopic of a failed Belgium racing cyclist, Ghislain Lambert's Bike (Le Velo De Ghislain Lambert) is a broad but entertaining comedy with excellent prospects in French-speaking markets and anywhere where cycling is a national obsession. Care will be needed to avoid it being perceived as a straight sports feature, but the offbeat, ironic humour could strike a chord in other European territories. While North American audiences are less likely to embrace a tale centred on a heroic loser, it may also do minor business there in sophisticated urban locations.
Narrated in voice-over by Antoine De Caunes, the film tells the story of the rise and all-too-rapid fall of Ghislain Lambert (played by co-writer Benoit Poelvoorde). Born on the same day as Eddy Merckx, the Belgian cycling star of the 1970s, he's convinced that cycling is also his destiny and dedicates his life to escaping his humble peasant background and becoming a world racing champion.
Alas, despite his dauntless determination, Lambert simply lacks stamina. Accepted into a racing team sponsored by a metal polish manufacturer, he comes in an inglorious last in his maiden race. He resorts to adrenaline shots, and, after an unlucky start when he is given a double dose by accident, manages to hold his own on the team, if not to become a winner.
Inevitably, Lambert is caught and this, combined with his refusal to act as decoy rider for the team's arrogant star, gets him fired. Under a punishing training regime supervised by his brother (Jose Garcia), he strikes out on his own and, with the aid of an expensive quack who prescribes a holistic diet of whisky and black radishes, actually manages to win a race.
His victory is short-lived. Firing his brother after discovering that the latter is creaming off his earnings, Lambert becomes embittered. When he yet again comes last in a race, he's taken up by an opportunistic sports reporter who turns him into a plucky folk hero. But the writing is on the wall and Lambert's racing career comes to a sudden end after he's incapacitated by an accident.
Much of the comedy is of the slapstick variety, centred on physical dysfunction, although the film also takes some well aimed potshots at seamier elements of the sports industry such as drugs abuse, commercial sponsorship, shoddy news reporting, race rigging and team politics. On a broader level, it could also be seen as a self-deprecating portrait of a national culture where failure is a cause for positive rejoicing.
However, the fast-moving pace is unable to disguise a baggy, episodic structure. The narrative increasingly comes across as a series of individual skits and, like its hero, runs out of puff midway: it would be vastly improved by shedding 10 or 15 minutes from the over-long running time.
Although Ghislain Lambert's Bike won the Best Screenplay award in San Sebastian, it's further weakened by a reluctance to delve far into its hero's psyche; a subplot involving his bashful courtship and marriage of a local girl is particularly thin. Though the aim is to celebrate a man who persists in following his dream, the prevailing tone is often sardonic rather than affectionate.
The film's trump card is Poelvoorde, best known internationally for his portrayal of a similarly obsessive character in the 1998 Belgian comedy The Carriers Are Waiting. His wiry physique makes him a credible second-rate sportsman and, with his baggy, hangdog face, he's a terrific comic screen presence. Production values are handsome, with colourful, CinemaScope photography and a peppy, mock-heroic jazz soundtrack by Philippe Eidel which keeps the numerous racing sequences moving along nicely.
Prod co: Les Productions Lazennec
Co prods: StudioCanal, TFI Films, Canal +
Fr dist: Vertigo
Int'l sales: Studio Canal
Prod: Adeline Lecallier
Scr: Harel, Benoit Poelvoorde, Oliver Dazat
Cinematography: Gilles Henry
Prod des: Francois Emmanuelli
Ed: Benedicte Teiger
Music: Philippe Eidel
Main cast: Benoit Poelvoorde, Jose Garcia, Daniel Ceccaldi