Philippe Petit and Jean-Louis Blondeau
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
Sydney Harbor Bridge
preliminary scouting atop the World Trade Center
Philippe Petit and Jean-Louis Blondeau
MAN ON WIRE A
Great Britain USA (94 mi) 2008 d: James Marsh
You have to exercise rebellion. —Philippe Petit
Fathoming the awe inspiring and the unknowable may be one of the fundamental inspirations driving some to defy that which is considered humanly impossible, not only by achieving spectacular accomplishments, but doing so with a dazzling display of artistry and skill, and this film certainly places its finger on the pulse of something that is simply beyond words or description. After seeing this film, one could only wonder how Werner Herzog, the documentarian of madmen and obsessives, missed his opportunity to film Philippe Petit, notorious high wire walker and self-described artiste légendaire, a man who defies all category of description with his death-defying performance art, who at age 24 shortly after 7:15 am on August 7, 1974 became the only man in history to attempt his high wire act between the two towers of what was at the time the world’s tallest building, the World Trade Center in New York City (which was still being constructed but nearly completed, giving them an opportunity to slip in unnoticed with huge amounts of equipment, including a balancing pole eight metres long, weighing 55 pounds), at 1368 feet, or nearly a quarter of a mile in the air above the streets of Manhattan, stepping off the South Tower onto a steel cable strung between the top 104th floors of the two towers and leisurely walking the 200 feet distance back and forth between the buildings some 7 or 8 times over the course of his 45-minute performance, occasionally sitting, even lying down on the wire, and finally giving a salute and a smile before he was arrested.
The title of the film comes from a police report description of the event, where Petit not only obliterated commonly held perceptions of what was considered humanly impossible, but he made it look effortless with such extraordinary ease, artistry and grace. A self-taught acrobat, juggler, magician, unicyclist, pickpocket and street performer who loathes the idea of limiting his craft to working in the circus, there’s an interesting use of split screen as on one side the World Trade center is being constructed while on the other, Petit’s life is being shown through a reconstructed home movie montage where actors are used to recreate his earlier life. Two memorable friends stand out, Annie Allix, his girl friend, played by Ardis Campbell when she fell madly in love, describing herself as an extremely shy person who was “overwhelmed, bowled-over, and harpooned” by him, while the other is his most trusted childhood friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau, both of whom recall the events with a surprising degree of intensity. Based on his own book published in 2002, To Reach the Clouds, Petit himself describes the meticulous planning that he and others studiously engaged in for 6 years before their successful venture, as the inspiration to walk the towers came to him at age 18 when he read an article about the construction of the towers which included an illustration, a picture he immediately cut out drawing a line between the towers, imagining himself elevated on the wire. While waiting for the towers to be built, he performed two other gravity-defying feats simply as a rehearsal for the main event, walking between the spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris which he performed as church services were in session, completely unaware of what was transpiring high above them in the air, and walking between the pylons over the Sydney Harbor Bridge which brought traffic to a standstill. Both events were filmed and are included in this spellbinding documentary, where at one point hovering over the bridge, the wire can’t be seen, giving the impression he’s walking on air.
Despite the fact Petit is alive and is recalling these events with a boundless enthusiasm, the element of suspense is staggering in this film, much of it due to the beautiful construction by the filmmaker, presented with a long build up of meticulous detail in planning and preparation designed to resemble the bank heist film RIFIFI (1955), but also due to the enormously compelling recollections of the people involved, some of whom are moved to tears thinking about it. If ever anything called for mental preparation, this is it, and the degree of concentration in Petit’s mind is infinitely greater than anyone else’s, yet this unusual cast, some 30 years after the fact, recalls the events as if it were yesterday, including Allix, who perhaps more than anyone else understood the magnificence of the moment. Her heartfelt exhilaration at seeing him fulfill his dream is memorable, as are Petit’s own lyrical and poetic thoughts as he so persuasively lures us into his world of wire walking, explaining how it consumes his entire essence and becomes the all-important driving force in his life. Blondeau, as well, is extremely articulate in explaining his role in helping mastermind with great care the exhaustive technical details for the whole ordeal and set it up so that Petit was comfortable on the wire. The idea of shooting an arrow connected to fishing wire from one tower to the other and subsequently adding heavier line until finally a 450 pound steel cable could be fastened to each tower was largely his idea, which also included steadying the wire with several supporting lines known as the cavaletti. But the closer they come to the coup, as they call it, a comedy of errors sets in elevating the significance of even the tiniest details, any one of which could derail the event. And yes, Petit probably embellishes the troubling encounters they ran into for dramatic appeal, but much of this is simply hilarious.
The fluidly paced juxtaposition of images makes this one of the best edited films of the year, with brilliant photography by Igor Martinovic, where some of the most striking images are amateur photographs shot by friends such as Jim Moore weeks or months ahead of time capturing Petit in solitary thought perched precariously at the edge of the roof on the tower. Michael Nyman’s supporting music, some of which others have heard before in Greenaway films, “Drowning by Numbers” and “Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds,” but also Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” The Lark Ascending - YouTube (15:03), Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Edvard Grieg, In the Hall of the Mountain King from "Peer ... - YouTube (2:34) and Peter Green’s “Albatross” Albatross - studio version - YouTube (3:05) have a fullness of sound that fills the screen before scaling back into the quiet eloquence of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, Erik Satie - Trois Gymnopédies - YouTube (9:06), delicate piano music as light as a feather that perfectly matches the ethereal elegance of Petit taking his first steps on the wire. Jean Cocteau once remarked on Satie’s Gymnopédies: “Satie goes forth quite naked.” The same could be said here for Philippe Petit. Unlike his other walks, there is no video camera, only unparalleled still photos shot by Jean-Louis Blondeau, each one generating more oohs and aahs than I have ever heard in a theater, but the moment captured is nothing less than magnificent, narrated by Allix who simply loves and adores this man who successfully redefines human limitations and literally floats in the sky. This is a thrilling and exhilarating motion picture that by defying gravity and human impossibility realizes a strange perfection, a fitting tribute to the fallen towers, creating transcendent, freeze frame moments in time that feel like poetic reflections of eternity.