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ROTTERDAM 2019 Limelight

Review: Coureur

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- First-time director Kenneth Mercken makes use of his own cycling experiences to explore competitive instinct and drug culture in sport

Review: Coureur
Niels Willaerts in Coureur

No sport has been tainted by drug scandals as much as cycling, and given the number of revelations and scandals revolving around the use of drugs in the sport, it’s perhaps unsurprising that filmmakers have tried to capture the culture of cheating and the morality of doing so on screen. Riding in the slipstream of Stephen Frears’ disappointing Lance Armstrong picture The Program [+see also:
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making of
interview: Stephen Frears
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]
Kenneth Mercken’s Belgian-Italian film Coureur [+see also:
trailer
interview: Kenneth Mercken
film profile
]
, playing in the Limelight sidebar of International Film Festival Rotterdam, offers a sober and un-moralising take on the life of a performance-enhanced cyclist – a life in which athletes will do whatever it takes to win.

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That the action feels authentic is possibly thanks to the fact that many of the incidents depicted actually happened to debutant filmmaker Mercken, who based the story he co-wrote with Monica Stan on his own experiences as a rider. The drama and moral questions for Mercken have little to do with the performance-boosting packages and blood transfusions, as he concentrates on the father-son relationship between his own alter ego, Felix Vereecke (first-time actor Niels Willaerts), and his overbearing father, Mathieu (Koen de Graeve delivering a complex and impressive performance). 

Felix is pushed into racing on two wheels by his dictatorial father, and from early on uses “vitamins” to improve his training. The young rider’s competitive instinct means that he is soon rebelling against his dad, and heads off to Italy against his father’s wishes to join a semi-professional team. There, we are introduced to a dog-eat-dog world, where teammates are wary of each other and the use of blood transfusions and performance enhancer EPO is accepted practice. As an outsider, Felix has to prove his worth to them as well as to his dad, and fulfil his own sense of self-worth as well. The cycling scenes are beautifully shot by Martijn van Broekhuizen (My Foolish Heart [+see also:
trailer
film profile
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), who uses his background in documentary to great effect. The refusal to condemn the drug use is an interesting take: even when it leads to scandal, those around Felix see it as bad luck, rather than morally wrong. It provides an interesting backdrop to what is, in effect, another adolescent coming-of-age story, and one with an unlikely anti-hero at its heart, that whizzes along fairly predictable lines. It comes with a dramatic kick when the director inserts archive footage from his own life into proceedings, delivering an emotional punch that finally makes Felix a sympathetic, rather than simply an angst-ridden, character. 

Coureur was produced by Eurydice Gysel and Koen Mortier for Brussels-based Czar Film, in co-production with Belgium’s Climax Films and Italy’s Kino Produzioni, as well as CanvasRTBF and BNP Paribas Fortis Film Finance. The international sales are handled by Italy’s Intramovies, and distributor Paradiso Filmed Entertainment will release the film in the Benelux.

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