Paul (Jacques Gamblin) teams up with his wheelchair-bound teenage son Julien (Fabien Héraud) to conquer an Ironman Triathlon.

SBS A Month in France Season

Charming French melodrama takes regular course.

Some movies aren’t afraid to be shamelessly sentimental, coy or even obvious. This French feel-good melodrama about father-son bonding was inspired by a true story and it happens to be guilty of all of those things plus a lot more besides. Still, it’s a hard movie not to like. Or rather, you like it in the way that those clean-skin folks who live inside morning TV tell you to like pictures like this: ‘as a soothing affirmation of the human spirit.’

The Finishers knows this maxim (and market) well. Directed by Nils Tavernier, it races along so quickly from heartbreaking set up to an all smiles and tears denouement, one hardly notices how it skips over anything too painful, grim or ambiguous. It’s all so beautifully programmed and calibrated; there is a perverse pleasure to be taken in watching each elegantly designed lump-in-the-throat piece click into place. (It’s a relief to find that it does not quite stick in the gut). Which is to say that The Finishers is well-schooled in a certain form. There’s even a kind of in-joke pointing in that direction. Or perhaps it’s a homage.

We’re halfway through the film. Tavernier’s heroes are watching a movie on the tele. Julien (Fabien Heraud) is 17 and has congenital cerebral palsy. He lives in a motorised wheelchair but he’s not prepared to sacrifice his soul to it. By this point in the story he’s convinced his dad, Paul (Jacques Gambin), a fit 50-something, to sign them both on for an Ironman race in Nice. Paul, a former athlete, is exactly the kind of father one encounters in pictures like this. He’s unemployed, depressed and deeply confused about his role in his son’s life. After a couple of false starts, Paul agrees to go along with Julien’s plot even if it all seems impossible. Meanwhile, Claire (Alexandra Lamy), Julien’s mum, frets for them both. Under ordinary circumstances the Ironman is a savage contest. Competitors must first undertake a two-and-a-half mile swim, followed by a cycle race of 112 miles, with a 26-mile run to finish –all to be completed in 16 hours. Paul must perform the whole thing with Julien as his ‘burden’.

There’s no question of a victory. Just getting over the line at the end would be a triumph. It’s like Rocky needing, wanting, to go the distance, to prove his life is more than just one blow of missed opportunity after another. And the movie Julien and Paul are watching? Well, somewhere Sly Stallone is smiling.

Alas, Rocky isn’t only quoted: it seems to be The Finishers’ guiding template. Once the stakes are set in a series of short sketchy scenes that are more like post-it note points – think ‘father’s estrangement’, ‘mother’s resentment’, ‘son’s tenacity’ – Tavernier and co-screenwriters Pierre Leyssieux and Laurent Bertoni give us a lengthy training sequence followed by a half hour dedicated to the race itself. And just as in Rocky, the stuff here where the heroes knock themselves silly in preparation for the big show provides a much-needed jolt of adrenaline and it’s easily the best part of the movie. There’s one close-up in this bit as Julien feels the sunny wind in his face; it’s like a vision of sheer exuberance as if we’re bearing witness to some majestic blessing. At this moment, he is strapped to the front of his dad’s bike in a purpose-built chair and barreling down a mountain road at some ridiculous speed. That one shot says more about this kid’s desire to rise above fate and its boundaries – and his need to share that feeling with his dad – than anything else in the film. Indeed, Tavernier and co. don’t have much of a feeling for character, dialogue or how to shape a scene so it breathes with something more than a fear of being misunderstood, but boy can they compose a stunning looking frame.

The cinematography by Laurent Machuel has that feathery afternoon sun quality much favoured by Euro filmmakers that puts the action in the real world without giving into grunge. It’s a look that’s romantic, full of longing, as pretty as a tourist ad and unmistakably optimistic. There’s some startling images: the opening aerial (it abounds with aerials) of the athletes massed on the beach looking like long thin seals in their black wetsuits and blue caps; and there’s a particularly pointed series of shots with Paul, at work as an engineer (he loses his job soon after). He’s hanging from a ski lift above a terrifying drop, in a work harness, seemingly oblivious to the danger.

The movie has its charms then, including the not-to-be-underestimated gifts of the cast who work hard under the weight of a script so loaded with comfy pieties that the characters can hardly move beyond boxy types: Paul, the introvert father that can’t bare to look at his son out of shame and embarrassment who undertakes the adventure with a ‘it’s now or never’ sense of duty and finds joy; Claire, the extrovert and Saintly mother, who finds a renewed hope in her family via this perilous challenge. Her own dark feelings, about the cost of her sacrifices, about Julien, and her marriage, are only hinted at, and then with little conviction. Still, it’s presumptuous to think that anyone who makes a film under the sign of Rocky wants to play rough.

But it does start off with an edge of excitement that had me thinking it might be a tougher, deeper take on the underdog story it is. I mean Julien is a bit of a rascal. He’s even been afforded a libido. Soon after we meet him he’s spying on the beautiful woman next door. She’s naked at the time. We never see her again but Julien is given a love interest – she’s in a wheelchair too. (Was that intended to be make Julien’s desire for sex more wholesome?). But I did like the way that Julien attempts to run down anyone he doesn’t like with his wheelchair. He likes to give the finger too. Especially to anyone who dares to think they can patronise him.


Watch 'The Finishers'

Saturday 13 February, 5:50pm on SBS World Movies
Sunday 14 February, 10:55am on SBS World Movies
Monday 15 February, 2:35pm on SBS World Movies

Now streaming at SBS On Demand

France, 2013
Genre: Drama
Language: French
Director: Nils Tavernier
Starring: Fabien Héraud, Alexandra Lamy, Jacques Gamblin

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