CHASE OGDEN: SUPER FRENCHIE (2020)


SUPER FRENCHIE: THE JUMP

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WEBSTIE

An extreme risk at a bad time inspires a comeback

"Super Frenchie" is the nickname of French-born ski BASE jumper Matthias Giraud, who now lives in Bend, Oregon with his wife and young son, and this is his story. Focus is on his gift, his passion, his craziness, his dysfunctional family of origin, and the conflictual situation of having his own little family - wife and adorable young son - while repeating one of the most dangerous of his exploits, the jump in the French Alps that nearly killed him six years before. Is he crazy? Is he selfish and egotistical? Or is he simply a dedicated champion extreme athlete who must do what he does or fail his family as a man? Pondering these questions may be what makes watching the film interesting. It does offer satisfactions, even if it can't quite match the range and focus of the Oscar-winning rock-climbing portrait of Alex Honnold and his unprecedented rope-free scaling of El Caitan.

Free Solo leads to an extraordinary, death-defying athletic exploit, but the pleasure of the film is how that moment is almost incidental compared to all the in-depth portraiture of Honnold himself. First we see Matthias Giraud as a mere toddler who skied almost before he learned to walk. As a 4-5-6-year-old he is extremely credible out on the slopes, and soon diving into the gnarliest bumps and rises alongside the main paths. Then he learns to jump, and eventually he is combining the two, skiing off cliffs with a parachute. Body cameras are showing these activities from the early frames. His delight is palpable, his yells and hoots of joy, the way he barks "3,2,1. . . See ya!" before a jump.

Giraud is a handsome, tall man with chiseled features, a perfect bright shining smile, wild, dashing dirty-blond hair - handsomer than Alex Honnold. But there's something eerily in common: the same big, dark, wide, blank, haunting eyes, the "Bambi" eyes the rock climber has. They reflect, perhaps, the same gaze into the unknown. Along with special gifts are special needs. Giraud is a charismatically spirited, joyful pursuer of his ultimate adrenaline rush.


SUPER FRENCHIE: THE EYES

Long a professional skier and BASE (buildings, antennae, spans, and earth) jumper, Giraud ws born in Evreux, France and grew up skiing St Gervais-les-Bains/ Megeve in the French Alps. He started as a competitive ski racer, but moved on to freeskiing and later on to big mountain skiing. (So much fucus is on the problematic big jumps, we dont't get to revel much in the wonder of his skiing, bu we get some nice glimpses of that at the film's end as he performs the first ski base jump from the summit of Mont Blanc. This film is of course above all a feast of mountain, slope visuals.) He first earned fame in the field with a ski BASE jump off Mississippi Head on Mt Hood, Oregon. His specialty is combining BASE jumping with skiing, with several firsts, including the first ski BASE jump off the Matterhorn in Switzerland. Another exploit we glimpse was escaping an avalanche off Aiguille Croche in Megve while performing a ski BASE jump with his friend Stefan Laude.

Who "Super Frenchie" is was forged in a difficult family life, "a lot of instability at home," he tells the camera. His mother was "an overbearing, manipulative woman," who made life especially "hard" for his sisters. His mother, both seen and heard throughout, seems concerned, opinionated, judgmental. Later he says he learned things that helped explain the discomfort. His aunt committed suicide, his grandmother was "very depressive." A sister attempted suicide several times, and finally succeeded when he was 18, jumping to her death from the window of an apartment in Paris.

His father was a doctor; that was "good." We hear from him only briefly, nicely, saying his son is a "philosopher," always seeking the meaning of life. Indeed extreme athletes do seek the measure of life by testing its limits. Anyway, Matthias recognizes that home, growing up, was not a safe place. "Nature is unpredictable," he says, "but it was way more predictable than being at home." A little strangely, he also says of his sister's suicide, "her death made me feel more alive."

There is something complicated about this kind of life that Super Frenchie shows us in repeated glimpses: it's the disconnect between embracing life most intensely and constantly skirting death. Three's a final memorial list of six notable BASE jumpers who died during the making of this film; one or two notable deaths that shake everyone mentioned in the course of the story. But even before he got married it's clear Matthias really wanted to live, not to "go in," the jumper's jargon for die in action.

But once he made a wrong decision, on a ski-dive from a high, remote French Alps mountain we've seen in other skiing films that takes hours to ski to. He overlooked the degree to which the wind had built up. And so when he jumps - we see this, from repeated angles - hanging from the parachute he's thrown against the rocky mountain wall four times. He was knocked unconscious, suffered a brain hemorrhage and a broken femur, and woke up three days later from a coma in the hospital. The trauma was severe and led to three months on crutches and relearning everything, which we also see, a little skiing, a little jump, the long road back.

But when this happened, his wife was pregnant with their son and three weeks from giving birth. We learn the messages she got, first that he was gone, then that he was alive but brain dead, then that his brain was okay but he would never walk again, only after all that that he was going to be okay. We remember Honnold was involved with his future wife, but not yet married when he free-soloed El Capitan. We see plenty of Matthias' wife. We also see plenty of their son, an exuberant charmer from the first with his mother's Asian looks and his father's commitment to sport, focused on skateboarding, for which Matthias surprises him with a ramp in the back yard. The first time we've heard him speak his native French is to his son. Alex Honnold again: his mother spoke only French to her children.

Final focus is on Matthis' successful effort, six years later, to do that jump that almost killed him, but this time do it successfully. This makes a nice trajectory. But what gives the film an added charge in the last segment is the strong confrontation of the conflict between being an extreme athlete and a father. The son shows exceptional maturity and sensitivity in something he says about facing loss that he explains by saying "My heart knows your heart." The father reads a letter he wrote to his son before the return to the Alps to be read in the event of his not returning. There is much maturity and sensitivity in this too - even if the world, and Matthias' mother, may choose to condemn him for putting the thrill of personal exploits above responsibility to others. But Matthias is French, he's rational. He has worked out an explanation for how he lives. "A strong man accepts his mortality. A weak man is consumed by his fear of the inevitable," he says in a TEDx Talk.

Chase Ogden, who wrote, produced, and directed this film, is s an associate professor of film studies at Eastern Washington University. This is his first feature-length documentary.

Super Frenchie 77 mins., debuted at Newport Beach Oct. 2020 and showed also at Seattle Apr. 2021, Vancouver, Santa Barbara, Sam Francisco and Missoula (Big Sky). It releases by Greenwich Entertainment Jun. 4, 2021 in theaters, virtual cinemas, and TVOD.