Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
When does a “sports movie” excel? When it doesn’t fall into the predictable traps and tropes of the much-loved genre. Subverting the traditional formula is writer-director Elodie Namer’s THE TOURNAMENT, a coming-of-age thrill ride set in the high-pressure world of chess competitions. I know, I know. The phrase “thrill ride” is not something you think of when you think of chess. Plus it’s considered a game rather than a sport. However, this isn’t your grandfather’s game; no one is SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISHER nor are they hipsters playing a game of COMPUTER CHESS. The electrifying, energetic drama has quite a few bold, brilliant moves up its sleeve. And what’s in store for audiences is a magnetic, dynamic and riveting piece of cinema.
It’s opening day at the Budapest Grand International Chess Open when hung-over, cocky, twenty-something Cal Fournier (Michelangelo Passanti) struts into the competition hall over composer Dombrace’s electro-pop-fueled score. Nicknamed “The Lock” because of his penchant for winning, Cal obsessively has his mind on the game – a quality coach Viktor (Magne-Håvard Brekke) loves, but Cal’s girlfriend/ fellow chess player Lou (Lou de Laâge) doesn’t as it constantly ruins their sex life. While it seems like “The Lock” will coast to victory, fate has something else in store for the reigning champ: day-glo-hoodied Hungarian wunderkind Max (Adam Corbier). Haunted and taunted by this 11-year-old child, Cal slowly loses his grip on his sanity as his world and relationships are thrown into chaos.
The world Namer plunges us into is real, riveting and enthralling. She wisely doesn’t linger on the chess board. She cuts through the fat. After all, most of the audience isn’t going to know one chess move from another, so there’s no time wasted. She lets the energy between the actors dictate the mood and the authentic kinetic energy of the scenes. This isn’t an intellectual fight – it’s a boxing match between two opponents. Nicolas Desmaison and Julien Ouvrard’s crisp cuts make scenes feel snappy, tension-filled and briskly paced. She also exposes us to the game’s sexism, something many of us don’t think of when we see mostly male top players. From how the players let off steam, to how they ready themselves before games (praying to entities like Lady Gaga and the Teletubbies), to how they celebrate victory and deal with the agony of defeat, Namer nails the tiniest details of the players’ everyday lives. It’s that kind of authenticity that will resonate with audiences.
Better yet, THE TOURNAMENT is a completely immersive experience. We go inside Cal’s head through the brilliant utilization of sound design. Hearing how he internalizes the game and seeing Passanti’s nuanced facial movements, eyes darting about with his chiseled cheekbones clenched, augments the narrative’s drive. As Cal’s journey down the rabbit hole grows more myopic as he focuses in on eliminating Max, the camera’s point of view also changes, at times askew and going from a large scope (where he views the entire hall) to a smaller scale (where he can only see a few feet away). Julien Poupard’s slick cinematography is saturated with emotion, highlighting Max’s bright hoodies and making the deep reds and blues drip and ooze color. Even the setting of Budapest’s Hotel Gellért becomes an oppresive, terrifying force by film’s end – a setting incredibly symbolic of Cal’s mindset. What once was his luxuirous castle becomes a nightmarish, disconcerting maze. Dombrance’s score, which morphs from electro-pop to more symphonic by film’s end, is reflective of Cal’s metamorphosis from robot to real boy, adding to the film’s tonal balance. It’s a highly pleasurable auditory arc that results in you wanting to own the soundtrack on vinyl immediately.
Namer has crafted a hyper-stylized cinematic masterpiece with THE TOURNAMENT. Check and mate!
THE TOURNAMENT (LE TOURNOI) premiered at ColCoa on April 25, and opened in France on April 29. No set U.S. release date at the moment.