Motion pictures
Cycling through cinema

Mere seconds into the history of cinema a bicycle makes its debut appearance, in the Lumière brothers’ La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon). It was the world’s first motion picture, shown in 1895 at the world’s first public cinema screening, which was hosted by Auguste and Louis Lumière in the basement of a Paris café. La Sortie is 46 seconds long: a single shot of a crowd, mostly women, walking out the wide gate of the Lumière factory and into a cobblestone street. At the five-second mark a man riding a bicycle enters the frame, exiting shortly afterwards with a large and excitable-looking dog nipping at his wheels.

The two modern innovations of cycling and cinema go hand in hand. We must thank French genius for bicycles, too, and publicity-seeking French sports journalists for Le Tour de France, the world’s most famous bicycle race – which this year, for the first time in thirty years, saw two Frenchmen on the winner’s podium.

Bringing up the rear of cinema’s cycling pack is Jacque Tati’s hapless postal worker François, from the great slapstick comedian’s first feature-length film Jour de Fête (The Great Day), made in 1949. At the village fete, François watches a film about the postal system in America, where daredevil workers deliver mail by helicopter and parachute, and motorcycle through flaming hoops. Shamed into new efficiencies, poor François tries his hardest to introduce Yankee-style speed to his bicycle round, with chaotic results.

French animator Sylvain Chomet would wave to Tati from the saddle of his own directorial debut, Les Triplettes de Belleville (The Triplets of Belleville), released in 2003. The titular triplets are ageing cabaret performers who watch Jour de Fête on their television, but the film’s starring trio is really the cyclist Champion, his faithful dog Bruno and his redoubtable grandma Madame Souza, who has just the hint of a moustache. A charming and unfailingly eccentric film, The Triplets of Belleville takes in Le Tour, sinister organised criminals, tadpole popcorn and music performed on vacuum cleaners. No really, you should see it.

Tati’s village cyclist might have looked to America for inspiration, but the hero of Peter Yates’ Breaking Away (1979) is a young Indiana man obsessed with Europe. Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher) rides as fast as does a visiting Italian team, chatting to them in Italian as he goes. The affronted visitors retaliate by sticking a pump through Dave’s wheel spokes and throwing him from his bike. “Everybody cheats,” a despondent Dave tells his father, “I just didn’t know.” It’s almost as if he saw Lance Armstrong coming.

Vincenzo Nibali, the Italian winner of this year’s Tour, insists (of course) that he is drug-free. Nibali makes the tenth Italian rider to win the coveted yellow jersey, which is my cue to mention Vittorio De Sica’s masterly Ladri di biciclette, or Bicycle Thieves (1948), the most enduring and certainly the most popular work of Italian neorealist filmmaking. Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is busy glueing bill posters of Rita Hayworth to a wall when his bicycle, upon which his employment depends, is taken. Antonio’s devoted young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) helps his father to scour the streets and marketplaces of Rome for the stolen bicycle, to little avail. (I wonder: is Sylvain Chomet’s loyal sidekick Bruno in The Triplets of Belleville a small homage?) As the camera moves past hundreds of bicycles, each as hopelessly alike as the next, we feel Antonio’s desperation and Bruno’s bewilderment. Bicycle Thieves is one of the great films about childhood: Bruno’s love for his poor father is unwavering, but it is also principled, and he breaks your heart.

Two more recent films carry with them a little of young Bruno’s spirit. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid With a Bike (2011) centres on Cyril (Thomas Doret), a 12-year-old boy whose father has abandoned him. He falls under the watchful care of Samantha (Cécile de France), a local hairdresser. Themselves dedicated practitioners of the realist mode, the Dardenne brothers have shot nearly all of their films, including this one, in the French-speaking Belgian town of Seraing, where they were born and raised.

Filmed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia by first-time director Haifaa al-Mansour, the recent Wadjda (2012) is named after its protagonist, a spirited eleven-year-old girl (Waad Mohammed) who covets a bicycle on display at a local toy store. Her neighbourhood friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani) has a bicycle, but he is a boy, and not subject to the same restrictions. Wadjda picks up on a long historical connection between bike riding and feminism. It was the ‘bicycle craze’ of the 1890s that led directly to reforms in women’s clothing, from the voluminous, highly impractical skirts of the Victorian era to the controversial bloomers, symbol of the New Woman, worn by cycling suffragettes. “The bicycle is on the way to transforming our way of life more deeply than you might think,” observed the celebrated French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt in 1896. “All these young women and girls who are devouring space are refusing domestic family life.” Liberté, égalité, cyclisme!

*This review was originally published under the title "Bicycles".

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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