Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait Review

Not so much a film as a work of art, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was conceived by Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon (famous for his 24-Hour Hitchcock where Psycho is projected at 2 frames a second) and French artist Philippe Parreno, the concept of the piece to make a portrait in real-time of one of the greatest football players in the world during the match between Real Madrid and Villareal at the Bernabeu Stadium on 23 April 2005 in front of 80,000 fans, using 17 cameras all trained on just one person – Zinédine Zidane.

The words “work of art” should immediately set off alarm bells, and you’d be right to wonder just where the artists expect to find inspiration in such a setting and with such a personage, who their audience is and just exactly what message they expect their work to impart to the viewer. The answer to all those questions I’m afraid, eludes me. Well, on one point I can see the potential in the project – it takes on the challenge of finding a new method of portraiture for a particularly modern-day kind of hero. Zinédine Zidane is an exceptional sporting hero, one I would myself consider up until recently to be one of the world’s greatest footballers. Never exactly flash, exciting or dynamic, Zinédine Zidane was nevertheless a strong, solid player of the inspirational mode, a playmaker, feeding and contributing to a game, making an unostentatious but nonetheless vital impact, capable even of controlling and directing the whole flow and pace of a match. In an attempt to show the person behind the sporting image given through selective viewings of him throughout a game, what could be better than focussing entirely on that person even when he is not the centre of attention, watching him do what he does best?

As the sole subject of a film then, it ought to be possible to see just how important that contribution is, see his vision, his ability, his skill and his impact. Who is Zinédine Zidane? What drives him? How does he read a game? It’s true he’s not the most expressive of players – scarcely a flicker of emotion crosses his face here, hardly a word is spoken during the match that makes any sense nor do any of the commentary/reflections that occur in the subtitles impart any great insight into the mind of the sporting star. There is a grimace of frustration, the hard setting of features of determination and concentration, a brief playful exchange with Roberto Carlos and, most characteristically of Zidane, a sudden outburst of fury. Even after numerous slow-motion replays of Zidane’s most famous clash with Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final and a subsequent “explanation”, the players behaviour during a crucial stage in perhaps the most important game of his life remains largely a mystery to most observers, and seen in a different context here, we still learn nothing more about the enigma of Zizou.

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is neither a character study nor a sporting analysis then since we see practically nothing of the match, focussed as the cameras are on just one player – not on the ball, just the player. Regardless of how good he is, football is never about one player and isolating them out of context from the rest of the team (Ronaldo, Beckham and Carlos are seen only fleetingly in the background) and from the match achieves nothing, and certainly tells us nothing about Zidane’s contribution or impact on the unfolding of events. But, perhaps it’s understandable that Gordon and Parreno have higher ambitions than being the Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen of the art world.

Given then that Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, is not likely to be aimed at sporting fans, who then is it aimed at? Well, football fans don’t often go to cinemas to see matches nor – if they have any taste in movies at all - do they go to the cinema to see films about football. If the film is destined for cinema exhibition, it must surely have some interest to film fans? Well, not really – there is no drama here, no narrative, and sadly, not even any style or technique to make this an audio/visual experience. Filmed with 17 cameras, there is not a shred of imagination (or influence of Goya or Velásquez) in the framing of a single one of the shots – Zidane in long shot, Zidane in close-up, Zidane’s legs and feet… apart from one or two cutaways to a camera trained on a TV screen that is broadcasting the match, that’s about it as far as the cinematography goes. (I suspect these cutaways were filmed later from a recorded TV broadcast of the match screen when the filmmakers realised that training all 17 cameras on Zindane and none on the match itself rather limited their options). Lacking context, the film also singularly fails to capture any sense of occasion, any sense of atmosphere, excitement, thrills, ebb and flow, action and reaction.

If the film then has no value as conventional cinema, as a record of a sporting event or as an analysis of a sporting personality, perhaps we need to approach it on different terms. Considering the background of the filmmakers as conceptual artists, perhaps then we need to think about Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait as a conceptual art installation piece. A few clues are scattered about the film - some obvious, some not so obvious – that clearly show that the intention of the filmmakers is not just to film a football match, but get inside the head of one particular player. The subjectivity of the viewpoint is emphasised not so much in the images as through subsequent manipulation of the sound. At one point, the sound of the match seems to disappear and be replaced by the sound of kids playing football on the street with a dog barking in the background – a suggestion of regression in the head of Zidane which feels patently fake, although it could just be a parallel moment, the sound taken from elsewhere outside the ground at the same time. At another point, when a goal is scored by Villareal (off-screen evidently, since ZZ is not involved), the noise of the 80,000 fans also disappears completely. Perhaps they are all Real Madrid supporters at Bernabeu, but it’s unlikely. It suggests rather an attempt by the filmmakers to create a subjectivist impression of Zidane blocking out the roar of the opposing supporters. The validity of such manipulation can be debated, but it is a work of art not a documenary, and the purpose of art in portraiture is to convey impressions beyond the surface by the most effective means.

Rather less convincing however are the artistic flourishes added during the half-time break when the camera leaves the ground to examine other news footage of what is going on around the world. At the same time as the match is being played on 23rd April 2005, thousands of people are made homeless by floods in Serbia-Montenegro, there is a 400th Anniversary reading of Don Quixote, frogs explode en mass in Germany, the actor John Mills dies and a car-bomb goes off in Iraq killing nine. How significant then is a “walk in the park” when compared to these events? Adding an outside perspective is the last thing that a 21st Century Portrait should need, and it rather speaks more of the artists’ attempt to add validity and meaning to the film that they were unable to find in its actual subject.

Zidane is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The dual-layer DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

Filmed in a variety of media from 35mm to High Definition Digital Video, the transfer here consequently probably looks about as good as it can. There are no flaws, analogue or digital, no compression artefacts, no edge enhancement – the image is always strong, stable and clear. It’s a little highly contrasted, perhaps because of the nature of the digital medium and unfortunately, film stock - whether digital or otherwise - feels a little too clinical as a medium for portraiture, failing to capture any ambience or warmth in its subject, or at least in the way it is employed by the artists here.

There are two audio mixes available, one Dolby Digital 2.0, the other Dolby Digital 5.1. The surround track evidently makes more of the subjective, in-the-stadium feel of the film (or art piece, if you like), but it’s not particularly as strong or dynamic as you might think. It’s clear enough to allow you to pick up the few words spoken by Zidane during the game, in Spanish, to the referee and his team mates and it’s subtle enough to allow you to notice the aforementioned manipulation of the crowd noise and outside sounds, but it never has any depth that you might expect from the roar of an 80,000 crowd. It’s certainly loud enough, and comes at you from all sides, but neither the ambience of the stadium nor Mogwaï’s score pack the full punch required here.

Zidane contributes some thoughts about himself and the nature of playing as occasional subtitles. Strangely, these are optional. This is probably the first time I’ve complained of subtitles being optional, but in the case of this film, I would have thought they would have been integral to the piece and not something to be selected or de-selected as you choose (and why not give the viewer multi-angle viewing options in that case?). Neither do we get the original French spoken by Zidane, but an English translation, so this is technically a “dub”.

There is no commentary track here, not even one by John Motson, but the DVD is nonetheless well supported with supplemental features.

Interview with Zinédine Zidane (8:29)
Zidane explains why how he was approached by the filmmakers and why he agreed to take part in the film, giving his impression of how he feels the film works.

Interview with Douglas Gordon & Philippe Parreno (31:37)
A pretty full interview with the artists responsible for the film gives a good account of its production and intentions, however pretentious or ill-conceived they may seem. The most laughable moment is when they talk about preparing the cameramen by taking them to the Prado to be inspired by Velásquez and Goya.

Making Of (41:30)
The making of is excellent - well-structured, it clearly takes the viewer through the whole process of planning and filming the event. There is not so much here on the ideas or the production difficulties – but this is covered elsewhere – as in showing how the cameras were set up, how the technicians were prepared and how they shot the film. The pretentious talking-bollocks award in this section however goes to the producer who compares the impassive Zidane to one of Bresson’s “models” and the film to a John Ford western.

Cannes Introduction (0:32)
Unable to attend the film’s opening at Cannes, Zidane recorded a brief introduction for the audience, presumably to show his backing for the project.

The remainder of the features consist of the standard Trailer (1:05), a Stills Gallery of 19 images that look like they were taken from a television monitor, and very brief and not terribly informative Biographies for Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon.

I’m not sure about the appropriateness of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait as either a theatrical or home-viewing experience. It would seem to be more at home in the Tate Modern where art critics can rub their chins and mull over its significance. As an art piece, you can’t blame Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno that their experiment didn’t particularly live up to their vision or potential. Everything in the film depends on the events that occur to one person on one particular football pitch over 90 minutes. Clearly a new way of looking at a familiar event, it doesn’t however reveal anything we wouldn’t have discovered watching the match on Sky Sports 1. In fact, it reveals much less. Still, the artists weren’t to know this until it was all filmed, by which stage, with all the expense of the production and development that had gone into the project, they had no alternative but to show it to the world, when in reality, if this were a canvas, it would have been seen as a failed experiment and painted over.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 03:34:14

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