the cannibal

words: andrew flanagan

Bicycle racing is a ludicrous spectacle. A hundred or more racers, divided into 20-plus teams, each wearing bright, skin-tight outfits with advertisements across their slight chests, doubled over handlebars, held in place by skeletal arms above piston legs. They are stalked through a frenetic gauntlet by cars and motorcycles loaded with attendants, mechanics, doctors, and cameramen. It is theater of the absurd, a human murmuration that generates more than its share of philosophizing. Roland Barthes, the cultural philosopher and godfather of modern myth, saw in cycling the capacity to redraw the lines of physiological limitations, “an ambiguous moment when man strongly personifies Nature in order to confront it more readily and to free himself more completely.” In his 1957 essay “The Tour de France as Epic,” Barthes examines how those racers’ extraordinary efforts mapped new lines, setting aside the rider in favor of the legend created on the machine. Barthes considered how we internalize that myth, pinning it to the insides of our chests to drip-feed our souls, allowing us to reconcile our inherently awkward relationship to the physical world with our interior, galaxial haze. Almost 20 years after Barthes’ essay, two kindred philosopher-filmmakers refined his observations into the enduring caricature of the classic racer: helmet-free and sophisticated, a blur on the road, enduring to earn that glass of wine at the top of the climb. Joël Santoni’s La course en tête and Jørgen Leth’s Stars and Watercarriers were cycling’s first existential masterpieces. Both were released in 1974, though their creators were—and pretty much remain—completely unknown to each other. The hero of Santoni’s La course en tête and the villain of Leth’s Stars and Watercarriers is the same person: Eddy Merckx, “the Cannibal,” first-born son of Belgian grocers, the greatest cyclist in history, a man who won more races and set more records than any before or since. The way Merckx raced was inhuman and dark, propelled by genetic bestowment and an elemental determination that seemed simple and unanalyzed, a pure compulsion to dominate. “I’m not interesting when I’m not on the bike,” Merckx once said, a claim bolstered by nearly every interview he ever gave. The other racers of his generation, and every one after, consider him the ceiling of a human being’s physical capabilities. His profile—not the silhouette, but the luminous projection made of him—was that of an unstoppable object. He was Santoni’s and Leth’s perfect subject. Though strangers, Leth and Santoni were entwined in two separate but complementary tectonic shifts in art that emerged and calcified in the decade before they made their films. Leth had watched as Andy Warhol (like Barthes, a winking conjoiner of the plastic and the real) and Pop artists gave beauty to the banal, holding up for examination subjects and techniques previously seen as too gauche or over-manufactured to be worthy of serious artistic consideration. In Paris, Santoni was surrounded by the low-budget, auteur-driven experiments of the French New Wave. Directors like Jean-Luc Godard, through the all-but-crippling limitations of their low production budgets, needed to create a new language for film outside of Hollywood spectacles like Ben-Hur. Their films resembled a snow flurry, with scenes edited to mimic the speed of synapse. They employed friends as principals, and shot on the Parisian streets. Both Pop and French New Wave showed Leth and Santoni’s generation that the creation of art—and the subjects it could take seriously—was wide open to interpretation. There was a fundamental reorientation of how art could relate to and capture the world.

Leth and Santoni arrived to their films’ subject matter from opposite directions. Leth was born into a love of cycling, attending track races as a child at his local velodrome, Aarhus Cyklebane, which was owned by his uncle. Now 79, the rangy, wild-haired Dane still cherishes his little green book filled with the autographs of the 20th century’s best riders, which he collected through-out the weekends of his youth. 

Santoni, meanwhile, knew nothing of the sport prior to La course en tête. He had been told about Merckx, the superhuman Belgian rider, by his close friend Louis Malle, the famed director (and a cycling fan who rode religiously). Malle floated the idea of a film on Merckx, and cycling in general, to Santoni. Santoni was intrigued. “Why not?” he remembers saying.

“Making a film is discovering what you know,” Santoni, 72, says from Lisbon, where he is scheduled to start filming a new project a few days after our conversation. Santoni knew little of the peloton’s intricacies when he began La course. “I was not familiar with any technical things. I started [the project] normally, which was stupid, as the whole thing was abnormal. You know that you want to film, and then every day you have to bring back what you know—pieces of meat, pieces of reality.”

Santoni was introduced to the famously quiet Merckx through Malle, allowed into his home, and later, inside the peloton. The first voice in La course, aside from random scraps of shouting and announcements, is that of Merckx’s wife, a choice that keeps the racer at arm’s length, untouchable and inscrutable. “In a way, I did create a myth. What I see of the film, what I like most, is the myth,” Santoni says. He is still captivated by Merckx, whom he visits occasionally. “I’ve directed Catherine Deneuve—still, Merckx impresses me most.”

For the first 17 minutes of La course en tête (“The head of the field”—which was also Merckx’s chief positional strategy) there are no explanations. It begins with a montage of herky-jerk, black-and-white newsreel foot-age set to drunken ragtime; dirt-crusted, old-timey racers outfitted in mud-caked wool and ur-French mustaches. Then ominously, beautifully, a silent steady shot, in color, of the road rippling with heat as a field of 140 riders approaches the camera from a distance. A buzz of spinning chains rises. It’s apparent that this is more a kinetic sculpture of cycling than an objective document.



Leth’s film opens with no preamble, its narrator detailing the route of the Giro d’Italia: “The 56th Giro d’Italia—the Tour of Italy. The cycle race, which this year has been extended for the first time to a semi-tour of Europe, 3,746 kilometers in 20 days. The Tour of Italy starts in Belgium.” A shot of the peloton winding through the thin, clay-colored streets of Verviers, Belgium, is sustained as the riders and their support cars pass for two minutes. Then, the race. Leth lovingly and respectfully describes the tactics being employed, as vista after vista blurs past. Where Santoni was removed and bemused, Leth was religiously attuned to the race and its intricacies.

“With art, you’re always telling your own story,” Leth says, when asked whether Stars and Watercarriers was a document of what he saw or more of an ode to the sport he loves. “It’s a mirror of what you dream about.” Leth was on the phone from Normandy’s Omaha Beach on the eve of the 103rd Tour de France, which he has been commentating on for Danish television every year since 1989. “I’m not tired of it yet.” Cycling has always been in Leth’s dreams. In addition to those weekly visits to his uncle’s velodrome, in his younger days he competed in amateur races, and composed poems in honor of famous cyclists like Fausto Coppi (whom Barthes once succinctly described as the “perfect hero”).

It’s clear from the first minutes of both La course and Stars that they are cut from the same quilt and meant for the same bed. The beauty of the hand-forged bicycles and the landscapes, the effort and the focus of the riders, the insanity and thrum surrounding the races, and the soft contours of the film stocks are practically identical between the two. Leth and Santoni, still only obliquely familiar with one another, repeat these artistic themes, half a world apart and half a century later.

Santoni: “The technique is nothing... it’s how you look at things.”

Leth: “Technique in and of itself is not interesting. But magic is.”

Santoni: “The whole thing is theater.”

Leth: “There must be villains and heroes.”

The two artists share a similar interpretation of the sport itself, its bloodiness and perseverance, its function as a titan factory. “You have all this advertising,” Santoni says. “These ridiculous caps, these ridiculous outfits—you’re absorbed. It’s like a fitful rêve, like Coney Island. But in this crap, in this over-colored, over-ridiculous event, there is something important in it, something dark.” Santoni says he saw this darkness in Merckx’s dominance, and wanted to bring people inside of the great Belgian’s aura, to give us a screen onto which we might project our own self-portraits.

Leth also wanted to capture the Zoroastrian struggle of the bicycle races. “Good is good on a background of bad,” he says. “That’s an old knowledge. You have to have the extremes in both directions. You have to have people you can believe in and people you detest but respect. Merckx is a good guy—I really like him. But he must be the villain in Stars.” And so he was, shown crushing opponent after opponent, regardless of their talents and despite their heroic efforts.

For all their similarities, the films’ separations are just as important to the formation of cycling in the popular imagination. Stars’ subject is the peloton itself, from the
pawn-level domestiques, team members there only to bolster the star rider, to the field of headline names like Gimondi and Ole Ritter. Stars is more cerebral, and maybe gentler for its creator’s love of the sport, relying heavily on detailed and poetic narration. (One section repeats the phrase, meditatively and thick with allusion, “It’s raining in Verona.”) Based on a suggestion from his editor (both Leth and Santoni were blessed with superhuman film collagists), Leth employed the narration both to explain the spectacle and to apply his vision onto it.

La course is all but devoid of explanation, relying on the juxtaposition of visceral, speed-of-thought editing and malevolent, baroque music; it’s reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s use of Beethoven and Rossini in A Clockwork Orange, released three years prior. (Where artistic documentaries on obscure sports luminaries are concerned, something was in the air in 1974: that year Werner Herzog released his film about a ski jumper, The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, which resembles Leth’s and Santoni’s films closely in construction, palette, and myth-making.)

When you watch a race like the Tour de France today, the riders are indistinguishable, their biostatistics measured in real time, their greatest strengths and weaknesses mapped to the millimeter. Cycling isn’t unique in this—there’s little room for mystery in any sport in the modern era. What remains, regardless of analysis, is the how, the ambition and personal drive of each athlete, the confrontation with nature and the possibility of triumph. What Leth and Santoni saw in the eye of their minds, through the lens of this beautiful, insane sport, was none of this. They simply saw the heart and exposed it to light.