'The Greasy Hands Preachers': San Sebastian Review

The Greasy Hands Preachers Still - H 2014
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

The Greasy Hands Preachers Still - H 2014

Biker-dude documentary rides easy and isn't much of a wild one.

Clement Beauvais and Arthur de Kersauson's French documentary celebrates the culture surrounding custom-built motorbikes.

"Two wheels good, four wheels bad" could be the motto for The Greasy Hands Preachers, a self-consciously rough-edged but ultimately genial paean to the joys of custom-built motorbikes. Trotting the globe to observe and interview the horny-mitted dudes whose profession and passions interweave to the raucous thrum of a well-tuned engine, first-time writer-director duo Clement Beauvais and Arthur de Kersauson unapologetically proffer celebration in lieu of insight but serve up sufficiently alluring visuals to make the ride worthwhile. The hog-mounted presence of executive-producer Orlando Bloom was a major publicity magnet for the picture's world-premiere at San Sebastian in Spain, and similar star-name advocacy could pave the way for further festival bookings before a lucrative afterlife as a niche DVD offering.

As befits a production that consistently trumpets the virtues of old-school technology, The Greasy Hands Preachers was entirely shot on Super16mm film, and is a classic example of a project done few favors by the near inescapable current hegemony of digital projection. Part of the enduring appeal of Mitsuo Yanagimachi's 1976 Japanese bike-gang classic God Speed You! Black Emperor, for example, is its status as a grimy 16mm artifact bursting with radical chiaroscuro. And while Beauvais and de Kersauson's journey into the zen-like world of motorcycle maintenance will never achieve the cult status of Yanagimachi's punkish blast of nihilism, it's not hard to imagine young guys (and perhaps even some gals) falling under the spell of their ode to laid-back, atavistic masculinity and the joys of manual labor.

Read more San Sebastian — Motorcycles Roar Toward 'On Any Sunday' Screening

Their trip, largely funded by commercial bike-related firms Belstaff, BMW and Motul — ironic, given we're approvingly told how custom-bike racers get by without "a big sponsor" — takes them across the USA to Europe and Japan, with suitably scenic detours to Scotland, Spain and Indonesia. Interviews mercifully avoid the perils of talking-head convention, but the chat's content is repetitive and only intermittently enlightening. Quietly ruminative Japanese enthusiast Shinya Kimura waxes intriguingly philosophical about how bikes are "as primitive a tool as knives or fire," but elsewhere platitudes abound. Motorcycle love is "a family thing"; the emphasis is on "fun — it's really about seeking fun"; "I get immense satisfaction out of pretty much everything motorcycle."

As an extended advertisement for a particular lifestyle, The Greasy Hands Preachers often slips into an fruitlessly monotonous gear. But when Beauvais and de Kersauson lay off the self-eulogizing, "evangelical" verbiage from these "preachers," their fluent combinations of visuals and soundtrack can occasionally soar. Four cinematographers — working separately, depending on geographical location — craft 4:3 Academy-ratio images that manage to transcend ad-land cliche and evoke a timeless, Americana-derived iconography of auto shops, peri-urban wastelands and ruggedly remote terrain. Sound-designer Xavier Dreyfuss is, however, the crucial mechanic on this particular cinematic engine, blending some well-chosen rock-country cuts with snatches of dialogue and the harsh "music" of well-oiled machines.

Production company: Mercenary Productions
Directors-Screenwriters: Clement Beauvais, Arthur de Kersauson
Producer: Arthur de Kersauson
Executive producer: Orlando Bloom, Nicolas Manuel, Thomas Vignali
Cinematographers: Jacques Ballard, Ryan Carmody, Stephane Vallee, Valentin Vignet
Editor: Clement Beauvais
Composers: Los Bevardos, Clement Beauvais
Sales: Mercenary, Paris

No Rating, 94 minutes