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Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait, documentary film, 2006

Despite that rather grandiose title, there is a 20th-century precedent for Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s exhilarating close-up study of the (now retired) star footballer Zinédine Zidane in action. In 1970, the German experimental film-maker Hellmuth Costard trained eight cameras on George Best during a league game between Manchester United and Coventry at Old Trafford, creating a multiangle portrait with a bombastic title of its own: Fußball wie noch nie (Football as Never Before) . The form of this new film may not be wholly original, then; but football, the celebrity status of its players, and the technical resources available to record it have altered enough since 1970 that Gordon and Parreno might equally claim to have portrayed the sport ‘as never before’.

If the flamboyant, fast-living Best provided football with its first pop-culture superstar, the contained and enigmatic Zidane embodies the stratospheric financial value now attributed to top players (his £41 million transfer from Juventus to Real Madrid in 2001 made him the most expensive player in football history)—and by extension, the sport’s cultural shift from a specialised, primarily working-class interest to a global media obsession and megabucks business. As July’s World Cup final showed, however, Zidane is no machine, but a creature of quicksilver moods and occasional outbursts of rage. The match that Douglas and Parreno follow—a 2005 home game between Real Madrid and Villareal—also culminates with the customarily composed player seeing red.

Unlike the ranks of fans and World Cup analysts, however, Douglas and Parreno don’t dig for the roots of Zidane’s actions. In defiance of a culture preoccupied from broadsheet top to tabloid bottom by the most intimate minutiae of notable persons’ lives, ‘Zidane’ concerns itself with the work . As much as it is a sporting documentary, this is a film study of an artisan in action, with antecedents in both Humphrey Jennings’ austere thirties and forties portraits of British working folk, and artist studies such as Henri-George Clouzot’s 1956 Le Mystère Picasso .

Though hints of Zidane’s personality come through—quotations appear on the screen as we watch him play—revelation of character is not the point. The player’s language is his game, and that’s what the film examines, using 17 synchronised cameras, and a combination of high-definition digital video and 35mm film, as well as an intriguing sound mix that seeks to replicate Zidane’s subjective experience of the game by dipping in and out of crowd noise and exchanges with other players. The effect is fascinating, capturing the solitary longeurs, the bursts of actions, and the split-second decisions in between.

As well as isolating Zidane’s technique and behaviour from the wider game around him, the film serves to emphasise the mystique that separates sports stars from those celebrities whose fame is founded in and indivisible from personality (a gap that often requires the scandal-seeking press to focus upon their wives and girlfriends instead). It also addresses the relationship between solitary endeavour and collaboration: Zidane as a lone individual, whose thoughts might wander anywhere (‘My son had a fever this morning …’), co-exists with Zidane as a team member who must think and operate as part of a collective.

Then, of course, there’s the wider world. Gordon and Parreno spend half-time reminding us what’s going on elsewhere on this particular day—23 April 2005. A car bomb in Iraq. A plague of exploding toads—no, really—in Germany. It’s a witty, humane touch, which further expands the parameters of an intriguingly complex love letter to the beautiful game.

Hannah McGill is film critic for the Herald