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Exclusive Cahiers du Cinéma Reviews in English: Man and Woman Bond Over Horse in ‘Sport de filles’

Exclusive Cahiers du Cinéma Reviews in English: Man and Woman Bond Over Horse in 'Sport de filles'

On the occasion of its 700th issue, legendary French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma has partnered with the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York’s premiere French cultural center, to present a special two-part CinéSalon film series. The series, which continues this month, features a selection of rarely shown treasures from French film history with a showcase of top picks that have been championed in the pages of the magazine. Indiewire is pleased to be partnering with FIAF and Cahiers du Cinéma to present reviews of films in the series originally published in the magazine and available here in English for the first time with translations by Nicholas Elliott, the magazine’s New York correspondent.

On Tuesday, June 18, FIAF screens former Patricia Mazuy’s “Sport de filles” at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The 7:30 screening will be introduced by stage and film actress Kate Moran. Isabelle Zribi, a novelist and occasional contributor to Cahiers du Cinéma, wrote the review below.

A man, a woman, a horse, 3 possibilities

“Sport de files” describes the triangular, slightly peculiar relationship of a woman, a man, and their shared passion for horse-riding. It is not an easy film to summarize. But to put it quickly: in order to be initiated to the highly elitist practice of dressage and be given her own horse to train, the working-class Gracieuse (Marina Hands) tries to draw the attention of a former German champion, Franz Mann (Bruno Ganz), now a coach who lives under the economic and domestic control of a business woman (Josiane Balasko).

“Sport de filles” is immediately striking for plunging the viewer into a film of unfamiliar lines and contours. Patricia Mazuy ably surfs between several relatively stereotypical narrative schemes of which there are endless examples, notably in American cinema: a romantic comedy relating the encounter between a spirited young woman and a man who has become cynical; an initiation tale, involving the same characters but in a filial master/disciple version; or even the bare basics of an athletic success story.

The film’s power resides in the very fact that it does not truly choose between any of these schemes, but remains on the border of each one, even combining them to short-circuit them, creating a hybrid genre whose outcome is unknown, far removed from the usual “good little French film” rolling along on its monotonous tracks.

Franz Mann and Gracieuse do not seem to be headed to encounter each other, for the simple fact that they do not associate. The apprenticeship comes to an abrupt end, since the young woman, having to make do without the flesh and blood trainer, has to learn by herself, using her memory of an archival film of Franz Mann at work, seen online in an OTB bar. Though Gracieuse travels 500 miles to get to a contest in Germany, she has no hope of participating: the final performance will not take place.

With every step, Patricia Mazuy mischievously foils our reflex expectations. The best illustration of this is probably the third example. After three weeks of training, her eye bloodied behind the band that cuts across her face, Gracieuse dashes to the German Grand Prize race in which the champion trained by Franz Mann is participating. John Cale’s music incites a tempo which seems to be leading us straight to an ascension as dazzling as it is improbable.

Yet Mazuy deviates from this trajectory leading us to a climax bordering on the ridiculous—an exploit at a contest in which even a neophyte is well aware Gracieuse cannot participate, but also the farm girl’s revenge on the bourgeois world of dressage, the ugly duckling suddenly becoming a swan—and reverses, stopping Gracieuse in her course. When the young woman irrupts in the middle of the contest, it is only to let Franz Mann know about her progress, to convince him to become her trainer and, most importantly, to get her own horse.

The narrative line’s complex circuit shows the circuit of the desires filmed. Both Franz and Gracieuse only have eyes for the horses, never casting a glance at the humans (she says as much to the stable boy who constantly enjoins her to move in with him: “It’s a horse I want, not a man.”)— to the point that their encounter presents itself as impossible. Gracieuse is straining toward a body—a horse—and an idea—having her own horse, to take it “all the way,” though we don’t know exactly what that means.

Her body is rigid, bundled up in form-fitting clothes (riding breeches), constantly leaning forward, whether on horseback or on foot. Her emaciated face never smiles, with the exception of a few nervous tics. Without apparent makeup or the desire to seduce (with the exception of the scene in Germany, where she suddenly makes herself beautiful), she has a stubborn eye, set on a single fixed, lateral point, which is incomprehensible for others, an absolute of blurry consistence.

Marina Hands’s very physical, occasionally eccentric and convulsive acting provides the character with a contained power and makes the film hum with an electric tension. The single-mindedness of Gracieuse’s obsession is also underlined by the wound to her eye, which makes her one-eyed for a time and quite literally blinkers her. With her green band contrasting with her red leather jacket, she looks like a pirate or an over-the-top character in a Western. She speeds along the highway enumerating a litany of dressage positions, blinded by the cars’ white headlights, horses superimposed over her face.

As in her documentary “Basse Normandie,” Patricia Mazuy depicts the obsession of a character following a slightly crazy dream related to perfection, a character who initially struggles with herself to attain the dream.

For his part, the former champion Franz only looks at the horses. Women riders succeed each other, attempting to attract his curiosity, even his favors, but in the manège he only pays attention to the bulges of the horses’ muscles, the symmetry of their movements, and the harmony of their appearances. His face does not rise toward the rider, remaining at the level of the animal. In a very beautiful half-light shot, we see him standing motionless among horses embraced in a bluish gray light, alone, the last man among them.

If a couple were formed, it would not be between Franz and Gracieuse but between the two protagonists and their respective horses. The two characters form couples with their animals, which are both the object of their exclusive attention and their strange doubles. In the stables of the Hamburg championship, the perplexity in Franz’s face is prolonged behind him by the meditative look in a horse’s face. Similarly, at the beginning of the film, the twinned heads of Gracieuse and a gray horse with one closed eye face each other in a tender mirror effect.

The film’s beauty is due to the way Franz and Gracieuse manage to find each other. The narrative construction itself seems to question the difficulty of finding a meeting point between these two solitary beings. Mazuy initially follows Gracieuse, then turns her interest to Franz, shifting the point of view to move toward a surprising and nearly comical intersection of their trajectories. The horses serve as a vector for Gracieuse and Franz’s desires and manage to bring together these two self-sufficient beings.

The most beautiful scene is probably that in which a fracture appears in their double insularity, when Gracieuse comes to show Franz her talents, reproducing the dressage reprise she had seen him do on the archival video of him as a young man at the height of his fame, with the self-confidence of the athlete who masters his art and the freedom that his life with the businesswoman has since turned into a memory.

Once the demonstration is over, Franz comes to pat the animal’s flank, to reward it for its effort, then his hand moves from the horse’s brown hair to Gracieuse’s thigh, tightly held in breeches of the same color, and nearly continues to her crotch. The scene’s abrupt eroticism is due both to the surprise caused by this gesture, which nothing has prepared us for, and the possession it embodies, Franz grabbing Gracieuse like a horse which he has accepted to train. Gracieuse, who already has a horse’s name, thus turns into a hybrid creature, half-human half-mare, a sphinx with female sexual organs which the androgynous sport of dressage had covered over.

Patricia Mazuy had initially planned to entitle her film “There is no ménage à trois.” But on the contrary, by staging a romantic encounter vectorized by a shared passion, “Sport de filles” seems to give credence to the idea that when it comes to love, you need at least three players.

– Isabelle Zribi

Originally published in Cahiers du cinéma issue 675, February 2012.

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