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Sunday in Hell, by William Fotheringham

A Sunday in Hell, Jørgen Leth

Title: Sunday in Hell – Behind the Lens of the Greatest Cycling Film of All Time
Author: William Fotheringham
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
Year: 2018
Pages: 260
Order: Penguin
What it is: The book of the film of the bicycle race
Strengths: Who hasn’t watched Jørgen Leth’s Paris-Roubaix documentary A Sunday in Hell and, having got to the finish, thought to themselves that that was a film crying out to have a book written about it?
Weaknesses: Fotheringham sets out to do pretty much the exact opposite of what Leth’s film did – piling on the minutia that the Danish director thought was best left on the cutting room floor

Jørgen Leth had his #MeToo moment in 2005. In a volume of biography he published that year he talked about how it was his right to have sex with the daughter of his Haitian cook whenever he wanted. Leth’s belief in a droit du seigneur did not find a warm welcome in his native Denmark. He was accused of having a colonialist mindset (which, to be fair, can hardly have come as much of a surprise to anyone given the man’s professed affection for the Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski’s 1929 book, The Sexual Lives of Savages in North-Western Melanesia – An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage and Family Life among the Natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea). His attitude was seen as archaic. His fall from grace was swift.

In the late eighties Leth had become a co-commentator on the Tour de France for Danish TV and as the Danish coffee club rose to power in the nineties Leth’s popular appeal rose with it. But following the publication of his autobiography Leth was persona non grata for Danish cycling fans. There were other costs: Leth had been Denmark’s honorary consul to Haiti, where he lived half the year, and he was forced to surrender that sinecure. A film project he was working on, The Erotic Man, was put on hiatus, Leth’s new-found infamy putting the mockers on attempts to source funding for it.

Leth’s wilderness years didn’t last long. In 2009 he was back commentating on the Tour for Danish TV and in 2010 The Erotic Man hit the festival circuit, where it received mixed reviews, many film critics finding themselves troubled by the Danish director’s attitude to women, especially his attitude to the daughter of his Haitian cook, depicted in the film: after a relationship that had lasted five years, she wanted marriage, he wanted to trade her in for the latest model.

All of this is dealt with by William Fotheringham in Sunday in Hell – Behind the Lens of the Greatest Cycling Film of All Time in an efficient style that readers of his journalism and other books will be all too familiar with:

“Part of Leth’s status can be traced to his much-loved television commentaries on the Tour de France, laced with a trace of tabloid notoriety following a scandal after publication of his autobiography Det uperfekte menneske (‘The Imperfect Human’) in 2005. ‘The commentaries paved the way to his popularity,’ says Morten Piil. ‘They are done with his special way of doing things, that special attitude – the same attitude you see in A Sunday in Hell.’”

That dismissive euphemism - “tabloid notoriety” - comes early into the book, after three dozen pages or so. Fotheringham doesn’t expand on the topic until late in the book, in a postscript, four pages before the finish. Here the author turns to the director’s friends, who see Leth as “a victim of the moral majority,” caught in the middle of “a classic conflict between moralists and liberals.”

Later in that postscript, Fotheringham for the first time in the book dares utter the d-word, telling us that Leth’s “views on cycling today are firmly nostalgic: against tabloid reporting of doping scandals, against night visits from doping control inspectors on privacy grounds”. There’s a lot more to his views than mere nostalgia. Here’s a quote from the Danish director I came across a few years back: “Cycling is not a clean sport. It is an unhealthy sport, an extreme sport. And that’s how it is supposed to be. It is what I have always cherished about cycling. It is filled with amazing, oversize personalities, eccentrics and people jeopardizing their life. Anything else is based on a stupid illusion that the sport is clean and riders should be role-models for young people. It’s a crock of shit in my opinion.”

Jørgen Leth

Leth, then, is a complicated character. Unfortunately, little of this complexity comes through in Sunday in Hell – Behind the Lens of the Greatest Cycling Film of All Time. While Fotheringham acknowledges that Leth is offering us “a personal vision” and that he “viewed cycling in the same way he saw other aspects of human life: sexuality, ballet, poetry, table tennis” the author somehow manages to find more words to describe Leth’s 1972 table tennis short, Chinese Ping Pong, than he does to discuss the more complicated aspects of Leth’s character. Given the testosterone-loaded view of cycling Leth serves up in A Sunday in Hell, is it really asking too much that a trip behind the lens would have something to say about the creator’s own take on masculinity? Is it really asking too much that a trip behind the lens would have the guts to simply present the facts and let the reader form an opinion without being served the judgement – absolution – Fotheringham feels impelled to deliver here?

Sunday in Hell is partly about the making of the film it takes its title from but is mostly about the race itself: we get the by now standard history of how La Pascale came to be a race that went in search of cobbles and discovered the Trouée d’Arenberg (despite the fact that that wasn’t a feature of the race Leth filmed); we get told how the routes of the race in 1976 and 2017 differed; we get personal recollections of the race from Fotheringham; we get capsule biographies of some of the riders who featured in the 1976 race. Here, for example, is Fotheringham on Raymond Poulidor:

“Few remember now that ‘PouPou’ was a regular at Paris-Roubaix, riding every year from 1960 to 1977 – his eighteen starts is a record. He finished eight times in the top twelve, with a highest placing of fifth, notching up at least a dozen punctures along the way, plus various broken bike parts, one disqualification for ‘an irregular bike change’ and several crashes.”

Or here he is on the differences in the race routes used in 1976 and 2017:

“Only a few sections of cobbles which figured in the 1976 route were still included in their entirety in the 2017 course, two of which immediately follow the Inchy crossroads: number 28 ‘Viesly to Quiévy’ beginning at Rue de la Chapelle, slightly descending, mostly straight, lasting 1.8 km. number 27 ‘Quiévy to Saint Python’ follows almost immediately out of the village via Rue de Valenciennes to the D113B minor road to the farm of Fontaine au Tertre. The 1976 race also used the cobbles known as ‘Saint Python’, which runs down the D134 road to the village of the same name down route de Cambrai over 1.5km; this section was included in the race up to 2016 but was abandoned in 2017 in favour of two new sectors near the village of Briastre.”

For the most part, then, it would be fair to say that Fotheringham presents A Sunday in Hell less as a piece of cinematic art and more as an historical record from a bye-gone time. A nostalgia-fest.

Of the film itself, does Fotheringham support his claim that A Sunday in Hell is “the greatest cycling film of all time”? With the exception of Leth’s own other cycling films I can only recall Fotheringham mentioning one other cycling documentary, Joël Santoni’s, La Course en Tête (1974). There’s no room for Claude Lelouch’s Pour un Maillot Jaune (1965), no room for Louis Malle’s Vive le Tour! (1962), no room for Joris Ivens’s Wyścig Pokoju (1952). (There’s no room, in fact, for anything done on the other side of the Iron Curtain at that time, even though the Peace Race was as pioneering in the use of helicopters for filming bike races as Fotheringham spends several pages claiming Leth was in his use of the gyroscopically stabilised Wesscam). There’s no room for any of the dozen and more cycling documentaries that have appeared since the turn of the millennium. There’s no room for any context for the film’s claimed superlative status, just the superlatives: Leth’s film is unique, we’re told; Leth’s film is a masterpiece, we’re told. But since Fotheringham also tells us that the unmade Yellow Jersey film that Leth was involved in is also a masterpiece I’m not sure how willing anyone should be to just accept his judgement on such things.

One of the curiosities of Fotheringham’s telling of the story of A Sunday in Hell’s making is that, in his analysis, a lot of what is good within the film is just down to luck, the whole thing is depicted as having been something of a crapshoot. Here he’s taking something Leth himself says and running perhaps a bit too far with it, Leth claiming that he likes to work with restrictions and have “a contract with chance” and Fotheringham returning and returning again to this whenever he thinks something good has appeared on screen, crediting it to the director’s “contract with chance.” The race getting past the striking print workers? Leth’s contract with chance. Eddy Merckx caught on camera adjusting his saddle height? Leth’s contract with chance. The scene in the café with the locals offering their take on the form of the favourites? “That contract with chance works in the most mysterious ways.”

Leth’s notion of a contract with chance comes from his occasional use of formal restrictions not unlike, say, those of the Oulipo movement in literature championed by Paul Fournel, or in music John Cage’s use of the I Ching, or cinema’s Dogme movement of the late nineties and early noughties, or like the constraints placed upon him by Lars von Trier in The Five Obstructions (2003). Maybe it’s no use of zoom, for instance, or no panning with the camera, or no shot lasting longer than twelve frames. These restrictions, he argues, open up the creative process to an element of chance, the film maker enters into a contract with chance.

But there were no such formal rules restricting Leth during the shoot of A Sunday in Hell, the only restrictions he had to deal with were the ones familiar to most people trying to create something: the need to work within the constraints imposed by time, technology and money. These Leth was able to overcome with a lot of forward planning and an equally lengthy period spent in the edit suite trying to find within the 35 hours of film produced by his 27 cameramen the hour and a half of celluloid that became A Sunday in Hell. Yes, you could say that every single thing caught on camera that day was down to chance, that everything that happened could have happened differently, or could have happened off camera. But that is to ignore the forethought involved in having cameras in the right places at the right time. That is to ignore the creative element of the editing process. That is to deny the skill of an artist.

Leth is, without doubt, a skilled artist. In Herbie Sykes’s The Giro 100 – 100 Tales from the Corsa Rosa, the veteran Italian journalist Gian Paolo Ormezzano talks of the three ages of cycling journalism: the cantors (“They venerated cycling, and for them it was almost liturgical.”); the eroticists (“We cared about it deeply but we wanted to understand it as a phenomenon.”); and the pornographers (“There is very little that’s erotic about the way they present the sport, but they are explicit to the point of obscenity.”). Leth’s film is from the second age, an era when the sport was reported by men like Gianni Brera and Antoine Blondin, from an age when words had power: power enough that even without ever having attended the race before Leth had read enough about the race, seen enough about the race, talked to riders enough about the race to be able to understand it enough to meticulously plan in advance for what he wanted to include in the final film.

Assessing A Sunday in Hell forty years on Morten Piil – the respected film critic who approved the Danish Film Institute’s funding of the project – told Fotheringham what it is that makes the film work: “It’s clean in a way; it’s not trying to be psychological, or critical or sociological in a way that overstates thing. It’s lyrical, heroic, beautiful, but also matter-of-fact, and the composition of the film is superior.” Sadly, Fotheringham’s book is none of that: it is banal where Leth is lyrical, safe where Leth is heroic, bland where Leth is beautiful. Where Leth is willing to be matter-of-fact, Fotheringham is given to overblown exaltation. Whether A Sunday in Hell really deserves a whole book about it I am undecided – what’s next, Rider – Between the Lines of the Greatest Cycling Novel of All Time? – but one thing I am sure of: it deserves better than this.

Sunday in Hell – Behind the Lens of the Greatest Cycling Film of All Time, by William Fotheringham, published by Yellow Jersey Press