Bittersweet comedy “Ghislain Lambert’s Bicycle” follows the long, almost completely undistinguished career of a determined bicycle racer from the early ’70s to the present. Pic’s ironic punch line doesn’t kick in until final stretch, making venture a lengthy haul for viewers not automatically captivated by low-grade competitive cycling or the gifted mugging of Benoit Poelvoorde as the title underdog. But helmer Philippe Harel continues to be able in the art of depicting petty slights and thwarted ambitions. Subject and treatment are tailor-made for many European territories.
An assured, omniscient narrator (the voice of Antoine De Caunes), introduces Ghislain Lambert (Poelvoorde), who lives in a small Belgian farming community with his mother, brother Claude (Jose Garcia) and mute farm hand Denis (Sacha Bourdo). Ghislain works part-time jobs and trains on long solo rides, primed for the day he’s discovered. A regional cycling coach, Maurice Focodel (Daniel Ceccaldi), finally signs him.
Ghislain rooms with Riccardo (Emmanuel Quatra), a fun-loving Italian who shows mild-mannered Ghislain the ropes, gives him his first amphetamine injection and encourages his courtship of Babette (Christelle Cornil).
Ghislain tires of being a mere cog in the pack and develops a grudge against the team’s arrogant lead rider, Fabrice (Jean-Baptiste Iera). As pic rolls along, Ghislain gets his revenge on Fabrice, is booted out for drug use, bides his time, gets back in the saddle with his not-entirely-charitable brother’s help and eventually earns a spot on another team.
Tale of an ordinary fellow who sticks with his dreams, even when they turn to nightmares, is an ode to stubborn defeat carefully calibrated to comment on the pitfalls of (tiny) corporate sponsorship, illegal performance enhancers and the myth of teamwork. Leisurely script’s best idea is its demonstration of how, under the right circumstances, there’s strength in weakness.
Working with Harel for the second time (following “Les randonnneurs,” 1997), Poelvoorde employs his proud, nebbish persona to excellent effect. There is no “good” reason to build an entire film around such a character — which is exactly what makes him so touching.
Widescreen compositions lend an ironic grandeur to the intimate tale, while conveying the physical challenges of several (fetchingly lensed) races on the scenic roads of France and Belgium. Period details, from clothes to wallpaper, feel right on. The sport of bicycle racing seems particularly pointless and not especially noble as presented here, but the blind devotion of its practitioners and fans is never made to seem ridiculous.