The title Tour de Force is enough of a hint that the new French comedy has something to do with the world's best known multistage bicycle race, the Tour de France.
The real 21-stage race began on Saturday. It runs until July 27 and will in total cover 3663.5 kilometres. In the film, bicycle- mad Francois Nouel (Clovis Cornillac) is fired from his job and dumped by his wife. He decides to follow the same route as the "Grande Boucle" - the French nickname for the race - ahead of the competitors.
At first he does so alone, but is then joined by other amateur cyclists who admire his tenacity despite various mishaps, including a down-on-his-luck manager Remi Pletinckx (Bouli Lanners).
Nouel becomes a media phenomenon and starts to get as much attention as the real Tour de France competitors from the public. This rankles the professionals; some set out to sabotage his quest.
Director Laurent Tuel, a self- confessed "big fan" of the Tour de France, has another view of his own film that will surprise some.
"It's not a story about the Tour de France," he says.
"It's a story of a Mr Nobody who has got problems with his wife and his kids. When I do the promotion of the movie I say it's a family story. It's the feelings and the relationships between people. The Tour de France is just a frame. It's a wonderful frame, an exciting frame - but just a frame."
Tuel says he became fanatical about the Tour de France about 10 years ago.
"When I was a kid I really enjoyed the Tour de France because of the publicity caravan that would give you goodies. [But] after, it was not my type [of thing]. I was into popular music.
"Then later I started to understand how the strategy [of racing] goes and I studied the history of the Tour. For years and years I would go to see the Tour. Even if there are many tall stories inside [the Tour de France] it's dramatic. It's like a movie to me."
Tuel says he was also conscious of just how deeply rooted the race had become in French culture.
"There's a phrase that's been coined for the riders. They call them 'the road convicts', like those guys in chain gangs who worked hard building roads by breaking rocks. It's also a chain of cyclists [riding], with some trying to escape. It's a good metaphor, I think."
Authenticity and an eye for detail was important for the film. The team worked with ex-Tour competitors and even managed to film during a race stage.
"Tour de France is owned by a private company, so when we wrote the screenplay we needed to strike a balance. We couldn't just write a screenplay that would cater to the private company. We had to have a critical eye and give a good overview of what the Tour de France is about. It also had to include doping and sports [as a] business."
Tuel describes the relationship with the Tour de France organisers as "intense", as the organisation seemed to change every day and involved so many people.
When he proposed being able to film during a real Tour de France, at first he was turned down. "They said, 'No, never. It's too complicated'."
However the organisers did soften their stance when Tuel proposed filming during the final stages of the Tour de France along the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Unlike some films shot on streets, Tuel couldn't get permission to block streets for a few days. Instead he had just three hours to set up about eight cameras along the route to capture a short but important finale for his movie. While it was nerve-racking, he was happy with the result.
"It was a real pleasure. We were lucky."
The idea for Tour de Force was developed by four writers - Lyes Belaidouni, Yohan Levy, Nicolas Souhami and Renaud Souhami - before Tuel, whose previous film was the gangster drama Ultimate Heist starring Jean Reno, was asked to direct.
"I [then] worked on the screenplay to put what I like in cinemas - not too much [visual] effects, but working on the characters. I developed some of the characters and got some ideas for the actors. It is a collaboration because we work in the same way. We had the same vision for what we wanted with this movie."
Tuel says that vision was a film that would appeal across age groups and he cites the example of the animated films from Pixar, now an arm of Disney, in the United States, including Toy Story and Up.
"I can say 'fairy tale'. I want to be proud to go to a movie where I can take my child and my grandfather. What I love about what they do in Pixar movies is that they have several levels of pleasure for the audience. A kid can enjoy it because they love many things. But there is also humour for adults, so I try to put it in my movie, too."
Cornillac, a big name in France in comic roles, including playing Asterix alongside Gerard Depardieu, was attached to Tour de Force from the start.
"It was new for me to work for him and I think he's fantastic. He has a wide range. He didn't care about himself, just the character. He could also be very careless and very touching. It is a very picturesque movie. We start with a nobody guy and at the end he's a kind of hero, [but] a human hero."
Tuel says he was careful not to be too predictable. For one, while the film has heroes and villains, people's positions, as in a bicycle race, change during the journey. "People are not bad or good to me in just one way. People can change and understand things, so it's also a metaphor for life. People can change their point of view."
Tour de Force opens in cinemas today.
- The Dominion Post
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