The Bottom Line
French Seabiscuit is heavy on the saccharin but goes down smoothly enough.
March 13 (in France)
Guillaume Canet, Marina Hands, Daniel Auteuil, Lou de Laage, Tcheky Karyo, Donald Sutherland
PARIS — Part inspirational sports movie, part bromance between a guy and his prize-winning horse, the French equestrian drama manages to clear several, though not all, of the hurdles of your typical against-all-odds athletics flick, offering up a rather classic mix of stunts and sentiment before galloping ahead to its stirring equine finale.
Written by and starring Guillaume Canet (, the upcoming ), this polished period drama from Quebecois director Christian Duguay () indulges in a tad too much slow-motion and schmaltz, but otherwise provides a diverting, at times engaging account of the titular French show jumper’s rise from puny underdog to Olympic champion. Opening wide in France on March 13, the €21M ($27M) Pathe release should see strong returns in its first frame, followed by overseas action in Francophone stables and film weeks, including an early Stateside premiere at the Rendez-Vous fest in New York.
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Loosely based on Karine Devilder’s non-fiction account “Crin Noir,” as well as on events from Canet’s own biography (he was raised by horse breeders and became an accomplished rider before switching to acting in his early 20s), the movie follows the real-life rise to fame of cavalier Pierre Durand (Canet) and his favorite steed, Jappeloup (whose full, very French name was Jappeloup de Luze), tracking their touch-and-go, ultimately triumphant relationship, from its origins in a small family farm in Saint-Savin to a gold medal at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.
Along the way, the two have to leap over many an obstacle, starting with the fact that Jappeloup is smaller than your average competitive jumper – a trait that causes him to be turned away when he’s first brought to the ranch run by Pierre’s generous, straight-talking dad, Serge (Daniel Auteuil). But, like the nerdy girl you pass in the school hallway until realizing, a few years later, that she’s blossomed into a beautiful blond, Pierre catches up with Jappeloup a second time and sees the colt’s potential, taking him under his wing along with the horse’s preferential groom, Raphaelle (Lou de Laage).
Meanwhile, the young Pierre is faced with a number of life-changing dilemmas, including his decision to ditch equestrianism for a law career and his encounter with a gorgeous local, Nadia (Marina Hands, herself an experienced rider) – both of which put a strain on his aspirations to become a professional horseman. When he decides to switch back to his favorite sport, the decision is not without its hiccups, and there are moments when Pierre seems caught between the woman he loves and the dark brown bronco he can’t live without. (One scene has him dismounting and kissing Jappeloup, then Nadia, then Jappeloup again.)
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Such narrative arcs are less convincing than when the film focuses on the finer details of equestrian competitions, including Pierre’s squabbles with the French national team’s prickly coach (Tcheky Karyo), his embarrassing fall during the ’84 games in Los Angeles and his eventual comeback in numerous European contests before bringing home the gold in ’88. Capturing the various training and tournament scenes in superbly framed widescreen (courtesy of Ronald Plante, ), Duguay shows a seasoned hand in depicting the rarefied art of professional show jumping, and Canet certainly impresses by pulling off many of the horse stunts on his own.
Alongside the actor/writer, who skillfully downplays some of the more melodramatic moments, Auteuil () is most memorable as the jockey’s warm and understanding dad, while lovely newcomer de Laage is promising as a girl who’s even more attached to Jappeloup than Pierre. (This is one lucky horse.)
Golden oldies by Cat Stevens, Thin Lizzy, Roxy Music and 10CC accompany a swooping score from Clinton Shorter (, ) that’s a bit of an emotional overkill, but otherwise does justice to the film’s undeniably rousing climax.