The loss of a loved one is always a tragic event. It makes us feel devastated, lost, disoriented, and worst of all, utterly helpless. Sometimes it happens suddenly, an accident, a heart attack, a stroke. Sometimes we get more time to prepare if the person we love so dearly is dealing with a terminal disease. In either case, the end will not come at the exact time and date we expect it to.
But what if it did? What if that person chose the exact date and place of their death? Will it be easier for us to let go, knowing exactly when it’s going to happen? Or will we grieve for the time we could have spent with them if they were willing to hang on any longer, while fully recognizing the selfishness of such a wish?
There have been a lot of narrative features and documentaries made on euthanasia, but “Tour De Force” manages to become a unique and emotionally immersive experience on the subject by sidestepping all of the surrounding political controversy and focusing entirely on the psychological and spiritual effects the practice has on people. It’s a powerful experience that’s remarkably tender and human, equally heartbreaking and life affirming.
“Tour De Force” begins like a typical buddy road comedy as we watch a group of friends deal with their archetypal genre issues while preparing for an annual epic bike ride from Germany to Belgium. We get a womanizer (Jurgen Vogel) who can’t seem to settle down despite nearing middle age, a married couple (Johannes Almayer and Victoria Mayer) with intimacy issues, and a man who seems to have some health problems. But when the gang reaches their first pit stop, they learn a devastating secret about this trip.
Hannes (Florian David Fitz), the one with the health problems, actually has ALS, and wanted to take the trip to Belgium, where euthanasia is legal, in order to spend time with his friends and his wife Kiki (Julia Koschitz) before choosing to end his life. This confession scene is one of the many dramatically heavy sequences in “Tour De Force” that could have easily veered into artificially tear-jerking melodrama, but director Christian Zubert finds emotional strength within the somber, distraught silence of the characters instead of exploiting an exaggerated outpouring of sentimentality.
What makes the situation even more tragic is that no one except Hannes wants him to go through with the procedure. How could they? Yet they all understand that it’s his decision and sometimes one has to support the wishes of loved ones even if those wishes are utterly heartbreaking to us. By the time Hannes’ decision is dropped on his friends, as well as the audience, we understand that all of the critical arguments between Hannes, Kiki, and Hannes’ mother (Hannelore Elsner) already took place before the bike trip even began.
By sidestepping the debate between personal freedom vs. responsibility to friends and family, one that pops up frequently about euthanasia, Zubert and screenwriter Ariane Scroder allow themselves to put all of their focus on the grieving process of the characters. The vital decision has already been made, and that’s not what “Tour De Force” is about. It’s about how each person deals with the imminent loss of a friend, a son, a spouse.
Of course, during the trip, we get the obligatory sub-plots examining the conflicts that were set up for the side characters during the first act. The womanizer becomes more open to commitment as he falls in love with a young girl (Miriam Stein) he picks up during the trip. The couple suffering from intimacy issues decides to explore new and exciting options. These sub-plots are obviously there for these characters to come face-to-face with their own mortalities and making snap decisions to change their lives for the better.
What sets these stories apart from the way they’re dealt with in similar films is that by focusing entirely on Hannes and Kiki during the third act, Zubert and Schroder steer away from giving these characters Hollywood-style closure. Sometimes, even when our intentions are pure and admirable, real change cannot occur during a mere bike trip.
Supported by serene shots of the gorgeous Belgian countryside, natural performances from the entire cast, and assured direction by Zubert, “Tour De Force” is a powerful drama about the value of life, friendship, and love, as well as the inevitable grieving process one has to survive upon the loss of a loved one. It looks like “The Big Chill” is facing some stiff competition, especially considering the Gen-X music in the soundtrack. [A-]