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A walk in the park with Zizou
A critical moan and region 2 DVD review of ZIDANE, A 21ST CENTURY POTRAIT /
by Slarek

Experimental cinema is, by its very nature, designed to challenge many or all of the accepted norms regarding content, style and structure in film. There are a fair few of us, jaded by repetition and the predictability inherent to so many modern movie projects, especially once there is a big name attached, who openly embrace this. And there are just as many for whom the idea of kicking against convention is a fine and noble thing, but who when confronted with such a work become irritable and dismissive.

As with any other form of art or entertainment, film is a subjective experience, but critical opinion rarely allows for that. Writers talk of films in factual terms – "this is a bad film," "this simply doesn't work" – and in the process sometimes make complete prats of themselves. What that critic, any critic, this critic is actually saying is "I didn't like this film" or "I didn't understand it" or "I actually don't like this sort of film, period." But to admit that the problem, if one exists, lies with the review writer rather than the work under discussion is seen by too many as a slur on their taste and guarded critical faculties. The critic is all-knowing, and only the filmmaker can ever be at fault.


Which is, of course, complete and utter bollocks.

As critics, self-appointed 'experts' (and I use that term loosely) in our field, all we can offer is our own reading of a film, which will always be influenced by our very personal preferences, prejudices and viewing experiences. Few critics will openly admit this, but it's always true. With a bit of luck, viewers in search of useful opinion will find a writer with the same tastes and prejudices as their own. Read enough reviews by any critic and you'll get to know which areas to trust them on and which to ignore. Better still, read a wide range of reviews for any film and particularly the comments that the more positive ones have in common. After all, you're looking for something to see and hear and experience, not something to bypass.

Here's one of my prejudices – I don't much care for mainstream Hollywood movies. I know that all stories can essentially be boiled down to a few simple narratives, but I tire of being told the same one over and over again with the same set of faces in the same simplistic manner. I don't much like knowing exactly how a film is going to play out even before the opening credits have concluded, and when a thriller bends realism in a manner that would sit better in a fantasy film, I find myself instantly detached from the action and the characters. I no longer care and am no longer involved. Which is why I rarely review such films. After all, if you can't say something nice...

Avant-garde cinema is always going to spike more noses than even the more run-of-the-mill entertainment. It is rarely easy viewing and will almost never provide the traditional pleasures of a more narrative-based work. Strong, safe, even predictable narratives appeal precisely because our everyday lives are constructed of a series of stories, whether it be the passing of anecdotes or the events that shape our days, much of which is governed by cause and effect. Mess with that and you have to rethink how you process information, and not everyone wants to do that.


Experimental film has been around almost as long as cinema itself, but still runs up against the sort of resistance that abstract art has always had to contend with, in the process provoking often violently bipolar critical responses. But much of the more negative criticism often fails to acknowledge the nature of the form itself, with the filmmaker chastised for not pushing the expected buttons and delivering a more user-friendly work, which is then too often dismissed as a failure. Such has certainly the case with Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait, a cinematic experiment on the part of artists Douglas Gordon (a Turner prize winner perhaps most famous for his installation piece 24-hour Psycho, which projected Hitchcock's film in ultra-slow motion) and Philippe Parreno. Their film qualifies better than any other to hit cinemas last year for the badge of cinematic experiment, but is, despite outward signs, no abstract compilation of footage and sounds.

This is not in any traditional sense a biographical film. It is, as the title states, a portrait in the true meaning of the word, of a sporting icon framed in the environment in which he is best known, and drawn using the technology of the multimedia age. Employing a total of 17 cameras positioned around the stadium, the film plays out in real time, focusing exclusively on Zidane for the entire 90 minutes of a Real Madrid vs. Vilarreal league match. It really is best to know this before you buy your ticket, as for those raised on MTV editing and cause-and-effect storytelling, the very concept of watching one thing for more than a few minutes in one stretch will no doubt prove intolerable, although there's a good chance that few those who balk at the idea have actually tried it.

Televised football is traditionally locked to the ball and the fight for its possession, a logical approach given that winning is all and the skills employed to do so provide the game's principal pleasures. Gordon and Parreno's film is not about the match, but the role of one particular player within it, how he moves and reacts, what he feels and how much of it he shows, and what he does in those long moments when the ball is beyond his reach. For large parts of the film, it's not about how Zidane shoots or tackles or runs, but how he waits, like a predator surveying its prey and watching for an opportunity to participate in the attack. It's a surprisingly seductive approach. During the first twenty minutes in particular, where the unbroken sounds of the stadium create a quite vivid sense of place, I found myself locked into Zidane in a way that almost gave me the same sense of ownership I might have with the central character in a video game, where success or injury takes on an elevated level of importance. This sent a surge of excitement through me when my man got the ball, and actually made me jump when an aggressive tackle brought him down.


The immersive aspect of these opening scenes is initially disrupted by the arrival of the first notes of Mogwai's compelling score, but this stylistic shift soon develops its own particular audio-visual beauty. Sound as well as music plays a gradually shifting role, from naturalistic to impressionistic, the roar of the crowd subsiding at one point until all that can be heard is Zidane's breathing, the thump of football boot against leather, and a single excited voice in the stands, recalling the player's own claim that the atmosphere of the game is such that there are times when he can almost hear one spectator whispering into the ear of another. Quotes from the footballer appear intermittently throughout the film as unvoiced subtitles, a further aspect of the construct that has come in for unconvincing flack, but which sit comfortably within the visual make-up and have audio-visual echoes elsewhere in the film. Just a few minutes after Zidane's remark that on the pitch you are never alone, for example, he is isolated within the scope frame, and for a few precious seconds he feels like the only player in the stadium. This is an image that recurs, the teamwork that is essential to the game caught only fleetingly, the focus on the contribution of the single player highlighting the fact that even an athlete of Zidane's stature is likely to spend the majority of a match out of the spotlight rather than in it.

Given the nature of the piece and the expectations I approached it with, I was actually surprised to find a narrative nestled beneath the surface, shaped in part by the ups and downs of the game and concluding in genuinely unexpected fashion. Key moments of the match appear as filmed-off-a-monitor video footage, and at half time there is a montage of images that took place around the world on that day to give perspective to the game's subjective importance. Zidane himself remains surprisingly unvocal for much of the time, his emotional state often buried behind a mask of complete concentration on the task at hand. When it does surface, as in moments of frustration or unexpected delight, it genuinely catches you off guard.

Which is all very well. For many viewers none of this will count for much for the simple reason that they will feel unable to connect with what Gordon and Parreno's observational real-time approach, and given the subjective nature of art and its appreciation, that's fair enough. But several reviews I have encountered have suggested that due to the film's experimental aspects, it belongs in a gallery as an installation piece rather than in the cinema or on DVD. This annoys the crap out of me, suggesting some sort of critically moderated grading system that specifies which films should or should not be seen in particular venues, an attempt by the intolerant to ghettoise something they don't want to watch and, by association, don't want you to see either. Well screw that – if it's OK to put Bridget bloody Jones in cinemas then Zinédine Zidane has every right to be up there too, on the big screen without risk of distraction or access to a pause button.


Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait is not an easy sell and for many will prove challenging or even unsatisfying viewing. If you find the idea of experimental cinema cool but actually don't much like watching it then you'll certainly have some problems here, and the average football fan may well be left more than a little bemused. But then again, maybe not. In the process of reviewing the disc I showed the film to football-fan friends and they were instantly hooked, one of them equating the film's approach to his own choldhood memories of following his favourite player during a televised match and screaming at the TV when he was off camera. It's a memory that co-director Parreno shares and quotes as an inspiration.

The stark division of opinion that has accompanied the film was certainly reflected at our cinema screening, where we lost a small proportion of the audience even before half time. But many of those who stayed the course were bowled over by what they'd seen and heard and were spouting superlatives as they left the cinema. Yes, it requires you to adjust the way you read film, and yes, it demands the sort of patience and concentration that many appear unwilling to invest in the art experience (if you've ever stood for an hour in front of a painting in a gallery you're already there, and if you haven't then you really should give it a go), and yes, it does start to repeat itself a little unproductively in the later stages. But it's still, in my humble view, a bold, brilliantly shot and sometimes mesmerising work, and one that most definitely should not be consigned to a gallery, but seen in cinemas and, in the right conditions (big TV, loud sound, low lighting and the romote locked away), on DVD.

sound and vision

The film was shot largely on Super-35, complimented by two high end HD cameras mounted with prototype Panasonic zoom lenses that have a phenomenal focal range, allowing the operators to zero in on Zidane's eyes from some distance away. Both images are masked 2.35:1 for the final print (this is common with Super-35). This choice of aspect ratio is crucial, both for capturing action that moves rapidly in largely horizontal directions, and for the exaggerated sense of isolation it creates when Zidane is caught alone in the frame. It also further distances the images from the 4:3 or 16:9 coverage we are accustomed to seeing on TV.

The anamorphic transfer here is a little strong on contrast, but faithful to how the film looked in the cinema – the cameras are shooting partly under the harsh glare of floodlights, after all. The HD images do sometimes stand out from the film, but the given the nature of the enterprise and the use of grabbed TV images, they sit very comfortably within the structure. Colour and detail are fine.


Two soundtracks are on offer, Dolby 2.0 stereo and Dolby 5.1 surround. I'll cut to the chase here – the stereo mix is perfectly good, but this was always designed to be heard in surround, where the stadium noise comes at you from every direction and voices and sound effects are directed to particular points on the sound stage. 5.1 also allows some startling jumps in volume, such as when we cut from the video monitor overview of the game accompanied by the muted voice of the commentator to the film footage taken from the touchlines. It's a splendidly immersive mix that really captures the atmosphere of the stadium in full flow, and allows the music, especially towards the end, to really kick. The stereo track track, it should be noted, is considerably louder overall than the surround track, but the 5.1 displays a better range.

extra features

Interview with Zinédine Zidane (8:30)
The enigmatic footballer talks about the inception of the project and the film itself and regrets that, as it was being recorded in such detail, he didn't play the game of his life. He also brings up the very pertinent point that had he been injured five minutes into the game then a great deal of preparation and expense could easily have been for nothing.

Interview with directors Philippe Parreno & Douglas Gordon (31:37)
Observer film critic and fan of the film Jason Solomons interviews the directors in a dodgily framed two-camera set-up that demonstrates just why the 'crossing the line' rule exists in film grammar. He asks all the right questions, though, and gets some detailed and open responses on the sort of areas I certainly wanted to know more about, including the influence of painted portraiture, especially the work of Diego Velasquez. Parreno nicely describes the film as "an exercise in solitude."

The Making Of Documentary (41:30)
Behind-the-scenes coverage of the preparation and shoot, including camera rehearsals, mixed with interviews with the directors, director of photography Darius Khondji and other crew members, including a football-loving American camera operator thrilled at landing a job that has made all of his friends and family jealous. You really get a sense here of how important the 17 camera crews were to the project, and for once its the operators, focus pullers and clapper-loaders that get to shine. We also get to see the activity in the control room during the match, and there is welcome footage of the recording of the score. A compelling extra that really captures the essence of the shoot.

Cannes Introduction (0:32)
A brief to-camera address by Zidane that was shown before the film's Cannes screening, which he was unable to attend.

Trailer (1:05)
The UK trailer, spiced with positive critical quotes.

Stills Gallery
19 press stills, treated to looks as if they're up on the big board.

Rounding things off are brief biographies of directors Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon.


As you've  probably realised, Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait is one of those films that catapults me onto my soapbox, a brave experiment that for my money is one of the more cinematically fascinating films I've seen in recent months and one that has been given an unfairly rough ride in some quarters. I'll be honest and admit that I genuinely didn't think it would work a fraction as well on DVD as it did in the cinema, but have been surprised how involved I once again became, in part due to the immersive nature of the 5.1 sound mix, and I've been dipping into it regularly ever since I received the disc. Artificial Eye's DVD is the business, a fine transfer, strong sound mix and two very good extras make this a very worthwhile purchase if you think this film is for you.

Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait
Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle

France/Iceland 2006
96 mins
Gordon Douglas
Philippe Parreno
Zinédine Zidane

DVD details
region 2
2.35:1 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
Interview with Zinédine Zidane
Interview with Philippe Parreno & Douglas Gordon
Making-of documentary
Cannes introduction
Stills gallery
Artificial Eye
release date
29 January 2007
review posted
1 February 2007

related review
Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait (Blu-ray review)

See all of Slarek's reviews