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ARRAS 2021

Review: The Racer


- Kieron J Walsh’s fiction film delves into the world of professional cycling, looking behind the occasionally noxious scenes of a Tour de France team and following in the wake of a wingman in the twilight of his career

Review: The Racer
Louis Talpe and Ian Glen in The Racer

"Victory belongs to the racer who copes best with pain." It’s upon these words uttered by cycling champion Eddy Merckx that Kieron J. Walsh’s movie The Racer [+see also:
interview: Kieron J Walsh
film profile
first opens, screening in the European Discoveries section of the 22nd Arras Film Festival. But in the world of the bicycle and its best known arena, the Tour de France, the tendency to push beyond one’s limits, which is key to the nigh-on superhuman performances produced by the highest level ‘slaves to the road", has often (from Simpson to Armstrong, via Pantani and so many others) surfed on a medically adulterated wave in order to lend more firepower to the racers’ legs and to stoke their fires in a bid to cycle ever faster for even greater stretches of time.

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It’s from the angle of the wingman, the servant, the racer responsible for protecting his leader, for ensuring his access to refreshments, for sheltering him from the wind and even propelling him towards the finish line so that he finds his rightful place in the famous "train" of sprinters, that this fiction film goes about dissecting the inner workings of a top international team at a time of generalised EPO doping; in other words, 1998, during the first three stages of the Tour de France which had been relocated to Ireland. It’s an exploration made two-fold by the fact that protagonist Dominique Chabol (Belgium’s Louis Talpe) - the sport’s former great hope who, at 38 years of age, was made road captain for the Estrange team and a "nanny" (24/7) for his leader Lupo "Tartare" Marino (Matteo Simoni) - is nearing the end of his career.

For Dom, the countdown has already begun and, on the eve of the start of the race, considerable uncertainty hangs over the renewal of his contract. The end of his career is secretly deeply upsetting for him ("cycling is my job. I’m nothing and nobody without a bike"), made worse when his sister tells him that their father has died, and Dom subsequently decides not to attend the funeral because "it’s the Tour" and potentially his last one. In the midst of the cycling team’s ritualised daily routine (meals, race stages, hotels, illegal transfusion sessions, anguished night-time wakings requiring urgent physical movement in order to avoid deep vein thrombosis, a side-effect of EPO, games of cat and mouse to avoid anti-doping tests, etc.), Dom oscillates between one paradoxical state of mind and another, caught between an old demon (his old accomplice and friend, trainer Sonny, played by Ian Glen) and a young, pretty angel (doctor Lynn Brennan – played by Tara Lee – with whom he embarks on an affair). And an idea begins to tempt him: what if he stepped outside of his role as a model teammate and won a stage for himself?

Simple and effective, The Racer (whose screenplay was written by Ciaran Cassidy, Kieron J. Walsh and Sean Cook) is a film which skilfully documents the ins and outs of a sporting universe, juxtaposing an ultra-hierarchised machine (and its various human components) with something resembling a family, harbouring emotions, shared moments, memories and secrets (some of a highly unsavoury nature). It’s a small, closed-off world of devotees, much like that of a travelling circus, where there’s no such thing as a free ride, but whose flaws are exposed by a filmmaker who never plays the moralist. Instead, he successfully endears his characters to us, and lends a credible appearance to the spectacle of the peloton tearing along the road.

Produced by Ireland’s Blinder Films in league with Luxembourg’s Calach Films and Belgium’s Caviar Films, The Racer is sold worldwide by British firm Independent. The movie will be released in France on 22 June next year, courtesy of Epicentre Films.

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(Translated from French)

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