“Super Frenchie” begins with what might be considered in the world of extreme sport docs a money shot, albeit an unexpected one. Skier and BASE jumper Matthias Giraud swooshes down a peak in France before hurtling himself into thin air. Behind him a vast shelf of snow cascades, with Giraud’s and photographer Stefan Laude’s cameras capturing the avalanche. It’s a pretty wild sight — and not just because Giraud is whooping with did-you-see-that enthusiasm once he’s on the ground.
Directed by Chase Ogden, “Super Frenchie” shares some DNA with Oscar-winner “Free Solo.” Opening June 4 in theaters, virtual platforms and on demand, the documentary isn’t as elegant or as fraught as that spectacular look-ma-no-tethers tale, but it’s nervous-making enough to impress. There’s reckoning about risk and reward, compulsion and choice, pleasure and loss. But Ogden — who met the French-born Giraud in the Pacific Northwest where he lives — wanted to augment a story of physical pyrotechnics with one of familial insight. A feat he often, gently achieves with the help of his ridiculously upbeat, uniquely wired subject who drudges up mountains — Mt. Hood, the Matterhorn, the Eiger — and (on a good day, of which there are plenty) floats down from their ledges.
Early free-skiing films like “Steep” — featuring legend Shane McConkey — captured Giraud’s young imagination. (McConkey became a friend and mentor.) Truth to tell, Giraud’s imagination was claimed even earlier by the peaks he pointed to as a toddler when his family vacationed in a resort village in the Alps. Mother Josephina and father Robert each attest to their son’s seemingly fated interest in peak experiences. (She with more vulnerable, and complicated, insights.)
For those in the know, there’s a fine cadre of elite BASE-jumpers who also weigh in on Giraud to name check. But the doc’s savvier insights and tenderness are due in no small measure to what Giraud understands about his own journey thus far and how the personal and professional threads entwine.
“I love speed. I love air,” he tells us early on. “I don’t think it’s changed much. It’s getting worse.” A tragic revelation midway poses the question, Is Giraud’s calling an addiction or a repudiation? It also hints at the life-affirming nature of his seemingly death-courting vocation.
Sure, we could put him on the proverbial couch, but he’s already done a fair amount of work toward self-awareness. For her part, Joann Giraud exhibits a marital wisdom that confirms them as a couple to root for but also learn from. With footage shot by Matthias and friends over a number of years, “Super Frenchie” covers their courtship but also the impending arrival, birth and toddlerhood of son Soren.
Giraud makes a few pronouncements that will likely cause viewers attuned to the received language about gender — and clichéd overstatements of sport heroics — sigh. But these ruminations are true to Giraud’s understanding of his place in the world at the time he utters them.
In the months leading up to the baby’s due date, Mattias tries to cram in more jumps — or “projects” as he calls them — in order to take time to be present for the birth. Days out, he heads for one last project: jumping from a peak in the mountain ridge above the village of his childhood vacations. For a guy attuned to his intuitions, he quells a sense of something being off. He jokes at a planning session with two colleagues that he doesn’t want to leave his femur on the cliff. In retrospect, the banter is more prescient than funny.
Because Giraud makes his descents and ensuing flights appear weightless, it’s easy to forget that like gymnasts and dancers, Giraud plays with and defies gravity. His seeming weightlessness requires a ridiculous amount of training. A devastating accident gives us a chance to see just how diligent Giraud’s regimen has to be. He’ll have to walk before he can fly.
Ogden edited footage from 25 sources — starting with the GoPro-wearing subject himself. Andrés de la Torre adds to the doc’s tug with his sound design (Giraud’s whelps of in-flight delight are particularly winning). The musical score feels old-school — and not in a good way. Like the scores of too many extreme sport movies, it presses the adrenaline drip when it wants jitters and goes stodgily symphonic when it signals will and triumph. What unfurls onscreen deserves better.
“Aside from the fear, there’s not much telling me ‘No,’” Giraud says. That is no small matter. Fear courses through “Super Frenchie.” It is wrestled to the mat again and again. “To live a true life you have to control fear,” Giraud says several different ways. The kind of fear he confronts on a cliff’s edge will resonate specifically with extreme athletes. But beyond Giraud’s calculations about wind and cliff-edge-to-floor ratios, his thoughts about fear reflect a generous nature and should speak to decidedly earthbound yet unnerved folks. He wants people to dream big.
Five years after Soren’s birth, Giraud returns to the mountain he didn’t clear. Before leaving Joann and Soren, he writes his five-year-old a letter. Just in case. Like much of “Super Frenchie,” it’s a thing of heart and grace.