Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
2006Director: Douglas Gordon, Philippe Parreno
Cast: Zinedine Zidane
he conceptual video artists Gordon and Parreno trained 17 cameras on the now retired French football legend Zinedine Zidane for every moment of Real Madrid’s 2005 home game against Villareal. The majestic footballer dominates almost every shot, the audience attempting to interpret the exterior narrative of the game via Zidane’s almost monastic, severe face. This, as no doubt intended, is an isolating experience, elevating Zidane, for 90 minutes at least, to the centre of the universe.
This film works depending on how much Zidane means to the individual viewer. For most football enthusiasts, he is a mercurial artist in his own right: enigmatic, modest, brilliant. He is widely accepted to be the greatest individual talent of the most recently retired golden generation, alongside Roberto Baggio, Gheorghe Hagi, Paul Gascoigne, Romario, and Hristo Stoichkov. Zidane has won more and done more. In fact, he’s won everything and done everything. The timing of the film made it even more compelling. When it was shot, Zidane was supposed to have retired. However, Real Madrid forced him to play one more season, upholding his contract and heavily marketed image. In this sense, his presence for that last year was ethereal, his time had come and gone yet there he was.
The release of the film came just a month or so after his notorious chest-butt of the vilified Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final. If this had been any other player, he would have been slaughtered by the tabloid vultures for abandoning his team in a moment of self-obsessed madness. Interestingly, unapologetic, Zidane reasoned that, after slaving at his profession for 20-plus years, with five minutes left to go until the end of his career, what better time to lash out at someone announcing that he’d like to fuck his sister? Remember, he is French, and points of honor seem less ridiculous over there. Collapsing emotionally in the game’s showpiece event is proof that he can do no wrong in the eyes of the world, and that he means something outside of football.
Zidane has always been an intensely private person. Funnily enough, watching him face to face for 90 minutes manages to serve his enigma, rather than penetrate it. The directors have claimed that they didn’t want to do a conventional documentary with Zidane, a by-numbers biography. No doubt Zidane would have refused anyway, and thanks be for that. Such films tend to be sycophantic and shallow. It apparently took the directors three years to arrange a meeting as Zidane has no friends outside of football, no contacts to set things up. The intense focus on the man tends to blur him at the edges. I think the picture in my mind of him is less clear now than it was before. That’s an important realization for me. We assume knowledge of icons without actually considering them, especially sports icons, in whom we invest so much passion and, yes, love.
From a technical point of view, the images are stunning. I believe some of the cameras used were developed by NASA (no doubt not for the purpose of capturing the beads of sweat on Zidane’s chiselled Arabesque face). It also comes as a revelation how little time Zidane is actually on the ball. His influence through strategic movement and well-observed positioning is awe-inspiring. A fine reader of the game, in his last year Zidane seems to have existed on a preternatural level of anticipation. He waits for moments, exploiting them, turning them inside out. Almost everything he does on the field yields for him, having somehow reduced his art into physical economy. If he had kept on playing much longer, as he demonstrated against Brazil in the World Cup, Zidane might have turned every touch of the ball into a punishing one. Like Michael Jordan on one of his unlikely highpoints for the Washington Wizards, Zidane, way past his best, was capable of being more brilliant than ever, on occasion.
Mogwai’s soundtrack of moaning guitars and fleeting feedback seems somehow fittingly primitive, reflecting as it does on the instinctive ability of a disappearing man. The sound was apparently dubbed afterwards, as it was impossible to expect Zidane to wear any sort of impeding equipment. Rather than proving an artificial barrier, the sound seems bigger than life, more intense. The boots of the players clomp and gallop, Zidane’s breathing is hard and mucky, the whack of leather on leather horribly, jarringly exciting. We see Zidane’s physical tick of digging his boot into the turf, like a horse preparing to escape from its pen. This is what Zidane illustrates best, moments of escape within the confines of the game. His performance is average on this occasion, until he shifts onto another level, the one he alone occupies, beating three men and crossing the ball for Ronaldo to nod in. These instances of distraction are more revealing about the game than the hours upon hours of commentary and analysis the man has inspired.
This is a film you can only despise or adore. Until I finished this review, I didn’t really know which. Zidane does lag severely, like most football games, in its middle third, but kicks back to life as you realize it’s ending and Zidane will almost cease to exist, having retired in the interim, displaying that he has only ever been alive on the field. The halftime montage of events around the world is arbitrary and slightly pretentious. Also, it’s obviously a frustrating experience to be denied the narrative of the game, rubbing against the natural desires of all football fans. Overall, however, we get an incredible and original piece of work that can never be repeated. Zidane’s departure from the film (and field), in which he is sent off in the last minute for a typically rash moment, and from the game of football itself, leaves a gaping hole. There is no one capable of replacing him, in any sense, in any scenario.
The film nurtures the romance of the man. It’s an exploration of the way we come to adore and celebrate sports figures, people who manage to battle in simplified microcosm the fundamental struggles of being alive—none so cutting than the inevitability of age and time. On viewing the film, Zidane commented that the man on the film is him, not because of his dazzling skills or dour expression, but because of his eyes. After the years of interviews and professional soundbites, he feared he had lost himself along the way. However, he says that his eyes remain, as if he were a little boy again, arguing with his brother. This movie is not for everyone, but serious sports fan shouldn’t miss it. It’s simple and almost autistic in its focus. As Zidane himself says in the subtitled text that occasionally flashes on the screen: Sometimes magic is close to nothing at all. Gordon and Parreno clearly understand what he means.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is currently playing in the UK.