Claude Lelouch (with François Reichenbach), who, the previous year, had been awarded the Best Screenplay Academy Award for A Man and a Woman, opens his Olympic film with a disclaimer that this is not an “official’ film, and then he lists 29 cameramen who just happened to be around when the Grenoble Games took place. Of course it is an officially sanctioned film. However, it is true that if you want to know about the athletes and the competitions, this is not the film for you. To Lelouch, the athletes are just props to aid him in presenting his artistic vision. Unfortunately, what must have appeared cool or New Wave in 1968, often comes off as self-indulgent or inappropriate 50 years later. Do we really need to see drunken men in a Bavarian bar grabbing the breasts of a middle-aged woman? Or multiple sequences of pet dogs and of tourists taking photographs? Or crazed female fans screaming for French singing celebrity Johnny Hallyday?
At the Opening Ceremony, Lelouch repeatedly shows us the President of France, Charles de Gaulle, as if he were Sweden’s King Gustaf V back in 1912. The Grenoble Games were staged in February 1968. By the time 13 Days in France premiered at the Berlin Film Festival four months later, de Gaulle’s government, although it survived, had been rocked by massive demonstrations led by workers and students.
Like so many other Winter Olympics films, this one shows us montages of skiers going downhill, figure skaters dancing and flying through the air and spectators gamboling in the snow. As usual, there are numerous shots of skiers and other athletes and even spectators being injured, although Lelouch seems to have a morbid fascination with closeups of athletes suffering. Borrowing from the 1964 Innsbruck film, we are shown the IBM data center at work.
Amid this mélange of images, one sequence stands out: an exciting ice hockey match between Czechoslovakia and the USSR, although the viewer would only know they were the two teams if he or she recognized the symbols on their uniforms. For the record, Czechoslovakia won 5-4, but the Soviet team ended up with the gold medals anyway.
Twice we are shown cameramen on skis following a skier down an Alpine course, with the sound and visuals edited to make it seem that this was done during the actual competitions.
There is charming footage of Soviet ski jumper Vladimir Belousov winning an upset victory in the large hill event and collapsing in disbelief, although the film does not identity him by name.
13 Days in France does not include any narration, but it does feature some original songs with pointed messages. Prolonged coverage of French hero Jean-Claude Killy, who won all three Alpine skiing events, is accompanied by a somewhat corny song about time, which does however, ask, “Do you know that for a few hundredths, others envy you or love you?” Killy won the downhill by eight one-hundredths of a second.
Another song is dedicated to U.S. figure skater Peggy Fleming. We are told that she comes “from a country that counts its friends as hard currency.” But the song apologizes to “Peggy” since it’s not her fault.