Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

Last week, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, directed by Douglas Gordon in collaboration with Philippe Parreno, showed at both BAM and Anthology Film Archives. Winner of FIFA World Player of the Year three times and both the European and World Cups with France, Zinedine Zidane is mainly known in North America for having brutally head-butted Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the chest, and for getting sent off in the last match of his career — which happened to be the 2006 World Cup final, a match France went on to lose in a penalty shootout.

He is considered the most gifted player of his generation, famous for his incredible touch and control. Born and raised in an immigrant ghetto in Marseille and recently voted the “most popular Frenchman of all time,” he also holds a special place in French culture for having been the most recognizable player in a national squad comprised primarily of players with their roots in Africa (a team about which Le Pen infamously claimed France “cannot recognize itself”), and consequently is a symbol for the new multicultural France.

All of this context lurks in the background of Gordon’s mesmeric film. Working with 17 cameras and a crew of about 150, Gordon follows Zidane –- and only Zidane -– over the course of an otherwise routine La Liga match between Zidane’s Real Madrid and Villareal on April 23rd, 2005, at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid. The film leaves the Bernabeu only at halftime, where Gordon surveys other events that happened on that day: Toads mysteriously explode in Germany; nine are killed by a car bomb in Najaf (a kid in the crowd is wearing a Zidane replica top); Gordon’s daughter is ill.

The soundtrack, performed by Mogwai, fades in and out, as does the voice of the Spanish announcer, the roar or murmurings of the crowd, and a text on the bottom of the screen in which Zidane, probably reluctantly, reflects on his career. His vague and laconic replies conjure Eric Cantona –- also a Frenchman with remarkable skill and temper, who while playing for Manchester United attacked a heckling Crystal Palace fan with a flying karate kick –- and then at the following press conference enigmatically declared, “When seagulls follow a trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”

Zidane’s comments provide one of the main sources of the film’s dramatic tension: He mentions how, when things are going badly, the crowd suddenly becomes perceptible. In addition to the cheers and taunts, he can hear a person coughing, whispering in the ear of their companion, or even shifting in their seat.

There is an oft-cited quote by French singer-songwriter Jean-Louis Murat: “Nobody knows if Zidane is an angel or a demon…He smiles like Saint Teresa and grimaces like a serial killer.” Part of what makes Zidane so affective as portraiture (see Michael Fried in Artforum) is its refusal to transgress Zidane’s impenetrable gaze or reveal his struggle to come to terms with his split French-Algerian identity — the fact that he often had nightmares as a child when his father worked the night shift, or whatever, that is the true source of these outbursts.

It is the film’s avoidance of such biopic conventions that simultaneously gives the event -– the match -– its gravitas, and exposes its utter banality. It allows us to see Zidane’s performance in a Sisyphean character (another training, match, season, for infinity) — a characteristic “professional footballer” shares with all of the world’s occupations. But we also catch a glimpse into what Hegel called the “night of the world”:

The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity — an unending wealth of many presentations, images, of which none happens to occur to him — or which are not present. This night, the inner of nature, that exists here — pure self — in phantasmagorical presentations, is night all around it, here shoots a bloody head — there another white shape, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye — into a night that becomes awful, it suspends the night of the world here in an opposition. In this night being has returned.

Image via KVIFF.

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