'The Squad' ('Les Joueuses'): Film Review

Courtesy of Rouge Distribution
A necessary addition to the sports doc genre.

One of the world's best soccer teams is chronicled in Stéphanie Gillard's feature documentary, which premieres in Cannes’ virtual Marché du Film.

Of all the reigning dynasties in international football — or soccer, as America still likes to call it — perhaps one of the least known is that of Olympique Lyonnais (OL), a team based out of France’s third largest city, Lyon.

Since 2011, OL has won a collective 26 national and European titles: thirteen French Championships, seven French Cups and six Champions League titles, including a record four in a row from 2016 to 2019. Based on those numbers, they could be considered one of the greatest clubs in French history, and perhaps in contemporary world history, period.

And yet, their notoriety still pales in comparison with powerhouse clubs like FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain or Chelsea. The reason for that is simple: Olympique Lyonnais is a women’s team.

(For soccer neophytes, note that an OL men’s team exists as well and happens to be one of France’s most historically successful clubs — although, unlike their female counterparts, they’ve never won a Champions League title. Major supporters of OL include Cannes head Thierry Frémaux, who co-presides over the team's OL Foundation.)

In Stéphanie Gillard’s enlightening behind-the-scene sports documentary The Squad (Les Joueuses), we get to know the female players of Olympique Lyonnais up close and personal, in the same way we’ve come to know France’s male players over the years — most memorably in the 1998 chronicle Les Yeux dans les Bleus, which tracked the French national team’s path to World Cup glory — or the way the dominating U.S. women’s team has featured in docs like Dare to Dream or The 99ers. (U.S. fans may recall that Megan Rapinoe actually played for OL from 2013 to 2014.)

Premiering in the Virtual Cannes Market prior to a French theatrical release in early September, Gillard’s feature, which was produced by actress Julie Gayet, offers up a much-needed corrective to her country’s extremely male-centric vision of soccer. In fact, up until very recently most French people were either unaware of the major talents that existed in their female clubs or didn’t want to know about them.

Even worse, during the 2019 Women’s World Cup, where France lost to the U.S. in a thrilling quarter final match, a leading (and often controversial) French intellectual like Alain Finkielkraut could be witnessed shouting on national television: "Stop with equality, equality! Equality yes, but with some differences ... That's not the way I want to watch women."

For those who do want to watch women of supreme athletic talent, The Squad is a good place to start, although its action tends to take place more off the field than on. Gillard spent the 2018-2019 season following OL as they try to repeat the successes of previous years, tracking the training sessions, workouts, physical therapies, press conferences and locker room banter that are part and parcel of a major league team.

Leading French players like Amandine Henry, Eugénie Le Sommer, Sarah Bouhaddi and Wendie Renard can be seen alongside foreign recruits like the Norwegian Ada Hegerberg — the first woman to ever receive France’s prestigious Ballon d’Or prize — the Welsh midfielder Jessica Wishlock and Japanese World Cup winner Saki Kumagai.

Focusing on their lives as professional athletes in a field where men are paid many, many times their salary for doing the same job — for the record, Hegerberg, the world’s highest paid female player in 2019, earned a little over $400,000 in annual salary, while top-paid male player Lionel Messi earned ... $80,000,000 — The Squad shows that many of the women still struggle with what can feel like second-rate status, even if the situation has clearly evolved over the past decade.

Renard, who began playing for OL when she was 16, recalls that until 2009, female players in France were not entitled to professional contracts and had to sometimes attend games without locker rooms or uniform changes. Fishlock feels like the money question should come after a more general question of respect: “It’s all about putting women in a better position,” she says. And younger players like rising 19-year-old star Selma Bacha explain how soccer has always been considered a boy’s sport, making girls like her grow up as oddballs in communities (and often minority communities in France) where they were meant to stay off the field.

And yet, beyond those and other notable differences, such as a shot of Renard helping braid a younger player’s hair, or the fact that none of the OL team members drive to work in a Bugatti like Cristiano Ronaldo, the lives of Lyon's hit squad tend to look a lot like those of the men at their same professional level. It’s all about practice and more practice, and when you see the OL players sleepily showing up for yet another early morning practice after playing a game the night before, you’re reminded that being a pro athlete means enduring a fair amount of grueling physical labor and repetition.

This can sometimes make The Squad a mundane affair, with the players not always easily opening up to the camera and with OL’s pivotal Champions League games unseen for what were probably rights issues. Still, that hardly takes away from the film’s interest not only as an informative sports doc, but as an historical document revealing what feels more and more like a turning point in terms of equality. If the best female soccer players in France are now deemed important enough to star in their own feature documentary, then they are perhaps finally approaching equal footing.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Market)
Production company: Rouge International
Director: Stéphanie Gillard
Producers: Julie Gayet, Antoun Sehnaoui, Julien Naveau
Cinematographers: Jean-Marc Bouzou, Stéphanie Gillard
Editor: Laure Saint-Marc
Sales: Be for Films

In French
87 minutes