A portrait with fluidity | Preserving Zidane’s day of work on ‘the green of the field’

The trailer from Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. The reference to cinema showings relates to the UK. At present, the film has received screenings in Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis; and Park City, Utah, as part of the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film is not currently listed on the Sundance Channel schedule.

For art-house and football film buffs in the United States, viewings of 2006 Cannes Film Festival entry Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait likely will be a private or slightly illicit affair.

Our copy arrived this week from the UK, where it was released to DVD on Jan 29. The disc comes encoded for Region 2, and we lack a multi-region DVD player; therefore, we had to view the film on a desktop computer screen. But the experience was no less intense than a cinematic viewing and, perhaps, accentuated the intimacy that filmmakers intended in training 17 cameras on Zinédine Zidane over an entire Real Madrid match versus Villareal in late April 2005.

Given the paucity of festival appearances for the movie stateside and as yet unformed plans for distribution, any larger-scale screenings will have to be undertaken with the heinous benefit of DVD conversion software. We do not advocate going this route, but we’re not going to condemn anyone wishing to share the experience with friends.

Goya’s self-portrait in India ink and wash (ca. 1800), at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, offers—perhaps à la Zidane (but with more hair)—“something of the Romantic sensation of the wildness of genius and the potency of the creative imagination,” according to Sarah Symmons in Goya (Phaidon, 1998).

In approaching the film, one must keep in mind that the last word in the English-language title, “portrait,” bears more importance than one might think. (At Cannes, where the film was an out-of-competition entry, it screened as Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle.) In a bit of serendipity considering the intent of filmmakers Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, the film crew was able to gain access to the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid on the morning of the game. There they studied portraiture by Spanish masters Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya along with work by the Dutch proto-surrealist Hieronymus Bosch.

For the 21st-century style of portraiture that they were attempting, the brushstrokes from earlier practitioners, albeit in a different medium, had to suffice in the absence of a storyboard and with few cinematic examples to which to turn for guidance. The directors do allude, from the art world, to 13 Most Beautiful Women by Andy Warhol (1964) and to Garrincha: Alegria do povo (Garrincha: Hero of the Jungle) (1962), from football, in plotting their influences. Parreno and Gordon, at the conceptual stage, showed Zidane portions of the Garrincha film in order to communicate their intent.

Parreno describes his film as setting out to capture the movie “in your head,” the pastiche of images created, for example, when traveling by bus or car and the scenes coalesce into one mesmerizing blur. Further, both directors, as well as Zidane, narrate the youthful experience of wishing to view their footballing heroes from as close to the TV screen as possible, replicated in the film during opening and closing sequences when Zidane’s form is lost amid a field of pixels. For Zidane, the draw was the announcer’s voice as well as the images of a personal hero, Uruguay and Olympique Marseille forward Enzo Francescoli.

As to the choice of the film’s subject, Zidane’s “Sphinx-like character,” according to Gordon, made him appealing, as well as distinctive facial features: tonsured head, strong nose, olive eyes and, during games, a darkened visage that make him a figure of potential menace. From the view of cinematographer Darius Khondji, the dark regions around Zidane’s deep-set eyes bring to mind the brooding black-and-white cinema of French director Robert Bresson. “At other times,” says Khondji, Zidane’s attitude “was very epic, like John Ford‘s westerns.”

Pardoxically, though, and partly a result of the complex findings that such a studied portrait puts on offer, Zidane emerges as a solitary, vulnerable figure. Again Khondji, speaking in one of the DVD’s supplemental features, provides the telling remarks:

When the focus was on Zidane, with all these cameras pointed at him, he was very fragile. He was really like a thin film, or a leaf. It was very unusual. He really traveled from one space to another, from a sort of blurry space, almost fluid like water, to a very clear, sharp image. And the result was something very beautiful which represented Zidane’s own fragility.


Khondji’s metaphor of fluidity cues the observation that Gordon and Parreno’s film exists, in part, as a meditation on bodily fluids. Zidane’s production in this respect is extraordinary. Like drips of condensation from greenhouse plants, perspiration travels over the narrow channel in Zidane’s chin and falls to earth at regular intervals, as if metered. In the second half, he must dispense the fluid buildup by continually raking both hands over his cropped head. Throughout, he whistles spit from his mouth to accompany a general attitude of irritation. For most of the 90 minutes, the game is a struggle. Zidane admits in a DVD feature that this was not one of his masterful performances, but the game is one in which “everything happened.”

The tight focus from the retinue of high-definition and Super 35mm lenses, two of the cameras having been requisitioned by the U.S. Army for surveillance, confirms the realization that the game, to Zidane, represents work. It is not play. When a smile crosses Zidane’s face, at wild gesticulations and a comment from left back Roberto Carlos, the brooding lifts briefly. Yet when Zidane saw the film, Gordon recalls that the moment of lightness was “the only thing in the film he didn’t like. Zidane hated it because it showed that he wasn’t concentrating on the game” (Tom Dart, “Portrait of the Artist as an Angry Young Man,” The Times, 4 Sept 06).

The cover of the Sept 06 Artforum: “[A] major part of the conceptual brilliance of Zidane consists in the fact that its protagonist’s sustained feat of absorption is depicted as taking place before an audience of eighty thousand spectators, with millions more watching via TV,” writes art historian Michael Fried.

For all the transfixing images that the film blends to create its portrait, as significant is the mixing of recorded match-day sounds with the synthesized tracks from Glasgow band Mogwaï. Audio engineers manipulate the input at their disposal. During some sequences, they favor the bass drums of the ultra groups behind the goalposts; at other moments, to heighten aspects of Zidane’s isolation, they filter out stadium noise. We are left listening to the scratches of Zidane’s cleats, his pants and sighs: sounds of worry. Once, a dog’s bark echoes clearly as Zidane lopes near the touchline at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. “You can almost decide for youself what you want to hear,” says Zidane within a subtext broadcast occasionally at the bottom of the screen.

You are never alone. I can hear someone shift around in their chair. I can hear someone coughing. I can hear someone whisper in the ear of the person next to them. I can imagine that I can hear the ticking of a watch.

This is the paradox to which Khondji alludes above. Some 80,000 spectators hold Zidane in embrace, but the sense is of solitude. With the familiar sounds gone, it is as if Zidane walks through a graveyard. “The silence of portraiture is very important,” says Gordon. In the collaborative squabbles with Parreno, in fact, Gordon says that he argued for more silent periods. One can imagine the naive Zidane of boyhood, perhaps, fantasizing about himself on this floating green surface—Zidane says that in retirement he will especially miss “the green of the field” (le carré vert)—but the terrifying sounds of collisions and insult shatter the reverie. The game with Villareal, characterized with irony as a “walk in the park,” is anything but.

The film’s halftime montage, referred to cryptically as the “Pink Flamingoes” segment, places the match of 23 Apr 05 in the context of other news from the day. Some items are portentous, such as deaths from a car bomb in Najaf, Iraq; some quizzical—a marathon reading of Cervantes at Drew University in New Jersey; and others ephemeral: announcement of the fleeting glimpse of an ivory-billed woodpecker, long believed extinct, in Arkansas swampland.

We return to the match. Which is more real, in the end: (1) the unknowable Zidane, who Gordon says ceases to exist, as a practical matter, following his 90 minutes of labor, or (2) these events of a day now lost to the blur of time and of which, more than likely, we have also had no direct experience? Since Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait will endure as museum piece and historical record, this memory on film, as with portraits dangling silently in galleries worldwide, might have the last word.

But, for now, the debate has been joined by highbrow critics, such as a voice at the London Review of Books: “[T]he galáctico, like any modern celebrity, is available to us only through his mediation, and the more pervasive his image, the more frustratedly we recognise that he remains finally opaque, unreachable” (Paul Myerscough, “Short Cuts,” 5 Oct 06).

And on a seemingly more plebeian level, within a discussion thread at the Internet Movie Database, one writer casts Zidane as Platonic form: an abstraction that might yet be accessible via the artist’s or filmmaker’s creation. Another demurs: “[A]re you suggesting that Zidane is the form of [a] footballer? According to Plato, his forms do not exist on this plane.”

As we contemplate these ideas, enticing yet just beyond reach, another voice charges into the discussion-board fray: “Alright fellas, it’s soccer. I’d like to hear the Mogwai tracks though.”


Hundreds of filmgoers formed an aesthetically pleasing elliptically shaped line outside the circular concrete form of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington before a screening on Apr 19. David Keyes of Culture of Soccer was shut out of the event, but includes a photo of the line of “ordinary Joes and Jills,” in the Washington Post‘s description (Blake Gopnik, “To Hirshhorn Filmgoers, One-Man Act Is All on Pitch,” Apr 24). Gopnik writes:

Instead of the usual artsies—students dressed in hipster gear, business-suited collectors and art-world veterans in black—the audience seemed mostly to be soccer buffs. There were sporty young couples out on dates, families with kids in soccer shirts, groups of close-cropped guys who looked as though they might have spent more time on the soccer pitch than in museums. … (The Hirshhorn security guards e-mailed the organizers after the show, asking about the crowd. They said how nice they were, compared with the usual audience.)

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] (Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait; France, 2006), dir. Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno. See Feb 25. 5. Fever Pitch (UK, 1997), dir. David [...]

  2. [...] The article below appeared originally on the Global Game site on 27 Apr 06 in commemoration of Zidane’s pending retirement from club and international soccer. We have also written about the art film by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle (Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait), that follows Zidane for 90 minutes in a match against Villareal in Apr 05 (25 Feb 07). [...]

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