What do you do with a movie whose outward appearance seems at odds with everything else it’s saying? You can admire its beauty or the characters it offers. You can be intrigued about any number of aspects, but you always keep coming back to the basic, potentially irreconcilable, issues at its core. This is the very problem we run into with “Super Frenchie,” a documentary directed by Chase Ogden and looking at the life and career of skier/BASE jumper Matthias Giraud.
The goal with the film, ostensibly, is to learn about this man, but the tale never truly delves into the subject. Instead, it’s a series of twists and tangles about some of the things that have happened to him and some of how he thinks and some of how he has changed as he has gotten older. There are realities that it would hide that come out in bits and pieces, as though Ogden and company have no choice but to show what’s behind the curtain. It is a story which seems utterly terrified of revealing too much, and this despite Giraud repeatedly saying that you can’t live your life afraid.
To start with the obvious, “Super Frenchie” is given its title because that’s Giraud’s nickname. How did he get that name? The movie doesn’t appear to say. Heck, this reviewer can’t even recall hearing anyone divulge that “Super Frenchie” is his nickname. It is on some equipment at one point, but that’s the extent of it. There has to be some sort of story there, doesn’t there (presumably it’s a part of who he is, or who he has been)?
Then, Giraud is not a man who does the extreme things he does—like skiing off cliffs with a parachute strapped to his back—on his own. He’s got a team who helps him. At one point an interviewee is credited as having been a part of that team. Not once, however, does “Super Frenchie” explain how the team works or how many members are a part of it. As one jump is being planned, we do see Giraud sitting down with two guys to talk about what’s going to happen, but it’s impossible to know whether these men regularly work with him (one of them, certainly, Giraud is only meeting in person for the first time), just that they happen to be helping get him to the top of the mountain this time. Why obfuscate the fact that he has a team of some sort?
Similarly, why obfuscate the fact that this is a business for Giraud? This is referred to as his profession, but there’s no talk about how he turned his avocation into an incredibly successful vocation (to the point where he travels the world skiing off cliffs with a parachute). That’s a massive sort of success story, clearly a large part of who Giraud is, and it’s missing from the movie.
“Super Frenchie” feels afraid to confront such issues head on. It is as though it is more concerned with mythmaking than reality.
As another example, Giraud is big on telling the camera about his planning every jump and doing everything as safely as possible. However, when he injuries himself quite badly during one stunt (the one mentioned above where we see some of the last minute prep), one of the guys who was with him on the day says quite plainly that while Giraud jumped, this man made the decision not to because it was clear that the wind was going to be a problem. Giraud appears to have taken a bad risk—one others with him at the time saw—and that goes against everything we have heard him preach.
“Super Frenchie” doesn’t care to address this in any way. Instead, in the aftermath of the injury, the film shifts the audience (if only accidentally) back to the unanswered financial questions. When Giraud’s in the hospital immediately after his injury and giving an interview, someone puts a baseball cap on the bed, so that it can point to the camera. Giraud then puts the cap on his head. The sense we get is that the cap is placed towards the camera and Giraud opts to put it on, because it’s a cap featuring his sponsors – there’s a monetary angle/contractual agreement to having the cap in the shot (for what it’s worth, once the cap is on, the logos are not visible, the better choice would have been to keep it on the pillow beside him). There’s nothing definite on why the cap has to be there, it might not be financial, but the only logical, available, conclusion is that it is somehow contractual.
None of these issues in the film’s presentation take away from what Giraud does on skis and/or with a parachute strapped to his back. There is a death-defying nature to his stunts and some of the footage is completely outstanding. It is something very few people could do and he manages it with seeming ease… except for that injury. And that takes us back to the mythmaking, doesn’t it? The movie has no desire to confront, beyond what is absolutely necessary, what goes into Giraud’s work.
The most in-depth it ever gets is in the prep for the jump that goes badly. The fact that we are about 40 minutes into a movie that runs less than 80 minutes when it finally starts to do more than offer anecdotes about Giraud, is “Super Frenchie” tipping its hand that the stunt is going to go badly as opposed to an analysis of what goes into really making a jump happen.
When looked at as a whole, what we have with this documentary is a movie that looks to have been filmed for something approaching a decade of a man’s life, but which only offers a cursory look at that life. Stories are told and interviews are offered in a way that makes it difficult at times to know when they are occurring, or why we are being offered when they are.
Perhaps the problem is not that “Super Frenchie” is afraid to provide the details behind its charismatic leading man. Perhaps the problem is not that it’s afraid to tell us what really goes into any of Matthias Giraud’s efforts. Perhaps the problem is much more basic – that it is just not sure what the story is supposed to be. Consequently, it offers a scattershot highlight reel that awkwardly shifts into the tale of one man coming to grips with the question of his own mortality as he and his wife first await their first child and then start raising that child. The organization of it all does not succeed.
Of course, some of this is just guesswork on my part – I can’t know what was in the mind of Ogden or Giraud or anyone else involved in the project, and the movie doesn’t say. I can only relate to you the sense of what is offered. So, is this the highlight reel of a charismatic young adult who has to face his own mortality or is it great shots of extreme skiing in search of a story or is it a stab at mythmaking? Most likely it’s a bit of all three and some other things thrown in for good measure as well. But, the sense I walk away with is fear, fear of analysis. Whatever the reason may be, this is not a movie that is comfortable with exploring the ins and outs of how Matthias Giraud does what he does so well. As such, it serves him poorly and leaves the audience disappointed.
photo credit: Greenwich Entertainment