Dirs. Douglas Gordon/Philippe Pareno, France/Ireland, 2006, 90 mins, subtitles
Cast: Zinedine Zidane
Review by Dave Hall
Widely admired when screened out of competition in Cannes earlier this year, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is a compelling, trippy and borderline disturbing experiment in real-time filmmaking that has received a publicity shot in the arm (or head in the chest, perhaps) from its subjects’ notorious meltdown in this summer’s World Cup Final.
The premise is simple. Co-directors Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno set up 17 cameras around the Bernabeu stadium on April 23, 2005 for a Spanish football league match between Real Madrid and Villareal. They then focused every one of them, for all of the 90 minutes played, on French footballing maestro, Zinedine Zidane. A spot the ball competition ensues, as the filmmakers obsessively follow this one player’s every move, wherever he is on the pitch, and whatever he does. We see him in long shot and close-up. We focus on his sweat-beaded head and restless feet. We watch as he stands still, saunters around, picks up into a jog, and suddenly sprints off. We wonder what is going on behind that intense scowl of concentration; is he upset, bored, frustrated, self-conscious?
On the soundtrack, a little more license is taken. We hear the sound of the crowd, a Spanish TV commentator, and ponderous soundtrack music from Mogwai, but also the almost subliminal sound of children playing, heavy breathing, even Zidane talking. At one point, as Zidane leans in close to the referee and we hear a low Gallic voice in our ear, we seem to be eavesdropping on an invitation to the boudoir.
If the concept ended there, we’d have a playful and compelling meditation on where voyeurism begins and ends. But the filmmakers over-egg the pudding by trying to inject too much po-faced profundity into the film. The sub-title, a 21st Century Portrait, hints at this; inclusions such as the thoughts of Zidane, spoken in French and projected as sub-titles, seem to be hinting at existential subtexts that the images we’re seeing don’t really support. Shots from above the stadium and Zidane’s continual glances upwards suggest a divine presence; at one point the ball disappears upwards; later it falls from the sky to Zidane, perhaps a pass from God?
Gordon and Parreno have a background in manipulating images, and their work is usually more at home in the art gallery than the cinema. In 24 Hour Psycho, for example, Gordon screened Hitchcock’s Psycho slowed down to two frames per second so that the film lasted 24 hours. In Zidane, time and again we are made aware that this person we are so closely engaged with isn’t “real”: the opening titles are displayed over an extreme close-up of a TV screen, and TV footage, digitized advertising hoardings and giant overhead screens are a constant reminder that we’re watching an image, a light projection.
As for the audience, we’re placed in the position of a character in another Hitchcock film; in the tennis scene from Strangers on a Train, we see psychopathic Bruno’s gaze fixated on Guy as the heads of everyone else in the crowd moves from side to side, following the ball. In Zidane, the viewer becomes stalker Bruno, the stadium audience the “normal” crowd. And as with Guy in Strangers on a Train, Zidane knew he was being watched, so there’s a suggestion that more than one performance is going on here.
Like its subject, Zidane is often enigmatic and mesmerizing. But it misses the back of the net when it tries to be something more than a record of Zidane in the here and now. And it is fortunate for the filmmakers that most of the drama on the pitch takes place in the second half, providing a sense of climax that might otherwise be absent. Perhaps the best summary of the film is that given by Zidane himself, remembering a French TV football commentator from his childhood: “the words were not important. Tone, accent, atmosphere was everything.”