Written by Sylvain Guy
Directed by Daniel Roby
People become legends in the annals of history for all sorts of reasons. They might have been great inventors, intellectuals, soldiers, artists, political leaders, activists or, arguably the sort of people who earn the admiration of the masses the most easily, athletes. Their impressive feats of physicality produce admiration, inspiration and courage, but do do their journeys, the stories of where they came from, especially when they hail from small, lesser known communities. Such was the case of champion weight lifter Louis Cyr from Saint-Cyprien-de-Napierville, Québec, who was promoted as the strongest man in the world in the first decade of the 20th century. Director Daniel Roby and screenwriter Sylvain Guy have now translated the famous strongman’s story to the silver screen.
As is so often the case with sports stories that inspire, Louis Cyr’s (Antoine Bertrand) beginnings were quite difficult, his family plagued by poverty and illness. Despite their constant hardships at work with the Irish and at home, Louis represents a single ray of positivity with his Herculean strength as he lifts 500 lbs rocks whereas other can only manage the task in groups of at least four. His gift attracts showrunners and circus men, leading the young man to a historical career in Canada, the United States and Europe as a strongman. His challenges proved numerous, from professional rivals, his insatiable desire to break records and protects his legacy, scheming managers and his greatest foe: illiteracy.
Daniel Roby’s Louis Cyr is a film that aims to buildup the legend as in cinematic fashion as possible whilst painting a more intimate portrait of the Mann’s private life, therefore demonstrating his vulnerable side. It is an ambitious idea considering how concept of weight lifting does not, initially, come across as especially cinematic. A sequence of scenes in which an actor pretends to strain as he lifts dumbbells, pieces of machinery and various other objects of significant weight may not stir the imagination and passions of movie goers at large, yet the filmmakers pull off the coup with the help of some judicious editing, strategic lighting and, in Antoine Bertrand, an actor who can play the part with convincing largess, personality-wise that is. The movie’s biggest surprise may just be that it successfully conveys the sense of wonder emanating from seeing a human being lift what so few others ever could despite it all being the product of movie magic. Then again, that is movie magic’s agenda, to make the unbelievable believable and to make the mundane compelling or exciting. Roby and his crew craft some great moments wherein the audience can be fooled into thinking Louis Cyr is indeed lifting on his shoulders a table on top of which ten people are standing. The one blemish in these scenes is the musical score which resembles Hans Zimmer’s work in Inception. Drama is a key component, but there is such a thing as overplaying it.
Antoine Bertrand is particularly attractive in the lead role, dialing the character’s grandeur up or down when necessary. While he plays the quiet scenes with depth, it is his ability to bring out the overtly strong personality Louis exuded which leaves the more lasting impression. Married to his aura of power is a degree of decency, of kindness and the desire to be good towards friends and family. Bertrand’s performance makes Louis inherently likable, which in turn renders the latter segments all the richer when his desire to prove his unparalleled strength and protect his legacy morphs into a bit of an obsession, eventually pushing him to bite off more than he can chew, or pull more than he can lift. Guillaume Cyr is solid as Horace Barré, a fellow weight lifter who admires Louis’ abilities more so than he believes in his own, and Gil Bellows commands his scenes as the manager who took Louis over to England to prove his worth to the rest of the world.
Where the film fails to pull its own weight is in balancing the drama of Louis’ impressive career alongside the more personal battles he fought, the two standouts being his illiteracy which plagued him his entire life as well as the fear that his daughter (Marilyn Castonguay), who demonstrated considerable prowess herself, would follow in his footsteps rather than earn a proper education, an attitude that bruised their previously strong bond. Both are ripe for interesting contrast against the glamour of the protagonist’s voyages and displays of mythic power, yet sadly neither is allotted enough scenes to really make an impact on the overall story. The issue of Louis’ inability to read or write is only brought up in earnest at the halfway point and the strained father-daughter relationship is communicated to the audience at first via a framing device (hence without context) with the actual details only skimming the surface in the final third. The latter point is especially disappointing because of the source of their differences: the daughter looks up to her father with tremendous pride, only to be shunned because he wants her to receive a formal education, pitting him as the villain in her eyes.
People can take away what they will from Daniel Roby’s film. If it is the sense of sweep and excitement derived from the concept of a man proving his might, then Louis Cyr is solid entertainment. Those hoping for a more multifaceted depiction of the man may be somewhat letdown. To properly flesh out the personal drama more running time would have been necessary and, as it stands, the film is already over two hours long. Louis Cyr’s biopic does not earn top marks, but settles for a lightweight champions belt.