Turning Tide (En solitaire): Film Review

Turning Tide Film Still - H 2013

Turning Tide Film Still - H 2013

This technically ambitious drama sails into choppy waters.

Francois Cluzet (“The Intouchables”) stars in this tale of a daring yacht race, which marks the feature debut of DP Christophe Offenstein (“Blood Ties”).

A fearless sailor finds his biggest race hindered by an unexpected stowaway in Turning Tide (En solitaire), the directorial debut of French cinematographer Christophe Offenstein (Blood Ties).

Starring Francois Cluzet as a navigator determined to win the Vendée Globe -- a 3-month-long race around the world, with each yacht steered by a sole captain -- and Samy Seghir as an immigrant boy who sneaks on board, the film offers a rugged and realistic look at international sailing competitions, where man is really on his own against the overwhelming forces of nature.

But as a dramatic two-hander, Turning Tide mostly falls flat, failing to build up characters you want to spend a lot time with, while never providing the nail-biting tension of a veritable sports flick. After a huge local rollout by Gaumont, the €17 million ($23 million) Euro co-production should see middling overseas business, with a competition premiere in Rome’s Alice in the Cities sidebar.

Written by Offenstein and producer Jean Cottin (The Last Flight), the scenario dishes out lots of exposition in its early reels, introducing us to Yann Kermadec (Cluzet), whose robust demeanor and Breton name suggest a man who’s spent more years at sea than on shore. Already aboard his heavily sponsored, solar-powered and extremely hi-tech vessel, he’s in constant communication with the love of his life, Marie (Virginie Efira), and her brother, Franck (Guillaume Canet, for whom Offenstein serves as a regular DP), a fellow sailor who’s been grounded after an accident, and who’s coaching Yann through his first ever stab at the Vendée prize.

Cutting between impressively shot, nearly wordless sequences of Yann steering his ship out of French waters, and plenty of throwaway ones where his girlfriend and daughter (Dana Priget) deal with their clichéd family issues at home, the film establishes an uneven tone from the get-go, and never really loses it. Granted, it’s hard to be as persistent as J.C. Chandor in All is Lost, forgoing any backstory to focus on the sheer magnitude of being alone at sea, but Offenstein tends to undermine his own exploits by inserting too many hammy scenes amid the otherwise awe-inspiring action.

After some smooth sailing, the course changes drastically when Yann’s ship is damaged and he’s forced to anchor off the Canary Islands. When he gets back in the race, he discovers that Mano (Seghir), a teenage boy from Mauritania, has snuck inside his boat, and there’s really no other choice but to allow him to clandestinely tag along, at least until they sail across the Atlantic.

Unable to communicate at first, the two spend a lot of time ignoring one another, although Yann's attitude changes when they’re forced to pick up a shipwrecked competitor (Karine Vanasse, Polytechnique) who discovers their secret. Later, Yann learns that Mano suffers from anemia and decides to give him medical treatment, even if he hasn’t completely gained his trust.

It's fairly obvious from early on that the gruff seafarer will come to change his mind about his troubled passenger, and the film hardly does anything to deter that suspicion, with each character behaving as you’d expect them to. And despite a scenario that clearly reflects current events in Europe, where thousands of illegal immigrants try to land ashore each year, Offenstein fails to raise any real questions here, trusting instead in the sheer goodwill of everyone involved. (Although one bit of dialogue, where Mano wonders why anyone would race around the world at all, does a good job at pinpointing the chasm separating the two characters and cultures.)

Much more successful are Offenstein’s attempts to capture the intensity and recklessness of the race, with many scenes shot in extreme conditions that feel like the real thing. Working with another gifted Gallic cameraman, Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist), the filmmakers weather wind, waves, rain and lots of shakiness, creating an atmosphere that’s as close to the recent documentary Leviathan as a commercial movie can be.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the outcome is as foreseeable as it is rather anticlimactic, with the score by Victor Reyes (Grand Piano) turned up to the max in order to provide a much-needed closing hook. And despite good performances from both the vet Cluzet and the upcoming Seghir (Neuilly sa mere!), Turning Tide manages to cross many oceans while remaining both emotionally and thematically landlocked.

Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 6 (in France)

Production companies: Gaumont, Les Films du Cap, Scope Pictures, A Contracorriente Films, TF1 Films Production

Cast: Francois Cluzet, Samy Seghir, Virginie Efira, Guillaume Canet, Karine Vanasse

Director: Christophe Offenstein

Screenwriters: Jean Cottin, Christophe Offenstein, based on an idea by Frederic Petitjean

Producers: Sidonie Dumas, Jean Cottin, Laurent Taieb

Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman

Production designers: Olivier Radot, Thierry Chavenon

Costume designer: Muriel Legrand

Music: Victor Reyes, in collaboration with Patrice Renson

Editor: Veronique Lange

Sales agent: Gaumont

No rating, 101 minutes