Villeneuve Pironi


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Villeneuve Pironi
"What is clear is the genuine affection held for its subjects, but that makes some elements of it all the more galling." | Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

Formula One is, at root, a set of rules. An evolving specification for competition, a set of constraints. Like those of chess, or the Marquis of Queensbury, they are a framework for rivalries, for triumphs, for tragedies.

Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi were, briefly, team-mates at Ferrari. Across five chapters, their forenames, 'Passion', '1982', and 'Discovery', we see how their paths crossed, fatefully, and then fatally. Glossy and well constructed, it is not an easy watch. That in part because it features footage of three accidents involving its eponymous subjects. Those earn it a BBFC 12A rating for 'upsetting scenes', and while I agree with that conclusion I don't think they merited inclusion. To see men battered and bruised in the aftermath is distressing enough, but footage of their accidents feels exploitative. Two of them occured during practice or qualifying, so are unlikely to have been broadcast live. That they exist is no obligation to use them.

Tis is a Sky Studios production. It seems that Sky Italia may have been able to garner access to Ferrari and, as Sky currently hold many of the broadcast rights for Formula One, this has given them access to the rest. One of the many figures associated with the money now in the sport, Bernie Ecclestone, contributes. So too members of Ferrari's paddock and back-room teams, and the families of the subjects. Gilles and Didier both had children, and all four are interviewed, as are the drivers' wives. There are some difficult moments, but their emotional weight is undermined by elements of the production.

Torquil Jones directs, co-writing with usual partner Gabriel Clarke. As Noah Productions they've been involved in several sports documentaries, Clarke also made a documentary about Steve McQueen's shoot for Le Mans. Like many of those this too is reliant is archive footage, but some of its reconstructions feel cheap and some of the film appears to have had grain added after the fact. At times they play into video artefacts. At others it appears there's been an attempt to add a veneer of authenticity through artificiality, like lens flare in a computer game. Pastoral soft-focus establishing shots feel less sympathetic and more false than a tilted head from someone from Human Resources. The score from frequent collaborator Nanita Desai is used with a heavy hand, perhaps to match the lead feet on the accelerators. She's done a huge amount of TV work, but may be best known for her Emmy-winning score for The Reason I Jump.

Like that film there's genuine affection for its subjects from those interviewed, including their familites. There's also a number of other racing drivers. Team-mate Jody Sheckter, Senna's great rival Alain Prost, and three time world-champion and safety campaigner Jackie Stewart. Not to mention Gilles' son, another world-champion, Jacque Villeneuve. It's his sister Mélanie who delivers one of the film's most powerful line, talking about how her grief is "not that of a 48-year-old but that of an 8-year-old recycled."

It is in that recycling that Villeneuve Pironi feels least worthy of those it is ostensibly paying tribute to. In Rush there's a discussion of the dangers of that era of racing. It was by beating James Hunt that Gilles made his name internationally. There's a clear inspiration from Senna, another racing biopic rooted in tragedy. Harder to justify is what amounts to speculation as to what drove these two men. The titles variously configure their names but everyone is speaking on their behalf. Whatever arrangements might have been in place it is now others making them for them.

Polyglot, with segments in French and Italian, this has some moments where translation seems like it might be weak. It's not clear for example if a line translated as "you have a shit driver" might actually have been "your driver is a shit." What is clear is the genuine affection held for its subjects, but that makes some elements of it all the more galling. Revisiting the circumstances of the accidents is one thing, but even discussion of how someone was less thrown clear of a vehicle than exposed by it disintegrating around him is difficult. As a fan of Formula One I knew the circumstances, but by choice hadn't sought out images, let alone moving pictures. From the presence of three of them, it seems that it was only the absence of footage from a fourth accident that meant it wasn't included.

That's a difficult gap to bridge. Given how many have died in the sport it still feels off that a reality show based in it is called 'Drive To Survive'. I shan't delve deep into the statistics - for a start I'd be cribbing too heavily from a dedicated Wikipedia page - but it feels poor tribute to those who have been killed around Formula One to show as much of it. It carries their names, certainly, but it feels a self-serving sensation, some ways short of a tribute. There are plenty of other eponyms around: Ferrari of course, Tyrell, Williams, Ligier, but this doesn't feel worthy of bearing the names of its subjects, nor their families.

Reviewed on: 10 Mar 2023
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Villeneuve Pironi packshot
Consideration of the infamous 1982 F1 season when rival teammates Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi were part of the sport's most controversial moments.

Director: Torquil Jones

Writer: Gabriel Clarke, Torquil Jones

Year: 2022

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: UK, Italy

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