Originally released in 1972, Frank Simon’s Weekend of a Champion offers a revealing glimpse of glamorous Monaco whilst charting the peculiar friendship shared by British Grand Prix legend Jackie Stewart and director Roman Polanski. Embellished with a remarkably informal post-script interview between the pair, this anomalous study of the past and present is affectionately expressed through the incomparable mediums of cinema and F1 racing car driving. What’s more, all this takes place during an era defined by Stewart as “a trendier, yet more hazardous time, when sex was safe and driving was dangerous.”
We follow motorsports fan Polanski as he spends the weekend of the 25th Monaco Grand Prix with Stewart, then at the height of his illustrious career, given unprecedented access to the driver. This unceremonious and ubiquitous approach results in a rare glimpse into the life of a gifted athlete at a time when the sport was reaching critical mass, with the speed and power of F1 cars accelerating well beyond the advancement of health and safety. Bookended by Simon’s camera snaking through the treacherous streets, first in 1971 and again in 2013, we see just how dramatically things have changed.
Anyone familiar with Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010) will realise that the passion, aptitude and fearlessness of the driver remains the same. Unlike Senna, however, this is a documentary about both the sport and the man, albeit one told in a far more laborious and pragmatic fashion. That’s not to say that Steward lacks the charisma of Ayrton. Sharply dressed in a flat cap, roll-neck jumper and sporting sideburns that would make Olympic cyclist Bradley Wiggins blush, Stewart is an endlessly watchable figure in front of camera. “If you’re going to crash, do it with publicity in mind,” is one quote that succinctly epitomises Stewart’s ideology as he illuminates us on his inner workings in an engaging, blunt, yet good-humoured fashion.
Digitally restored, with a 20-minute finale showing Stewart and Polanski reflecting on how their lives have changed, towards the end Weekend of a Champion disappointingly morphs from a biopic of the man behind the wheel into a celebration of risk assessments and a cautionary tale about safety precautions. Consequently, this incredibly narcissistic grace-note feels like someone has turned on the DVD extras before the credits have had time to roll. The moment the camera pulls out to observe these faded heroes basking in their former glories is the exact same point the film loses momentum, unveiling just how in awe of its subjects it really is.
Whilst supplying the doc’s most revealing material, this jarring epilogue of Polanski and Stewart exchanging pleasantries and anecdotes could easily have been used in a more inventive fashion. Instead, by being lazily tacked-on to the end of the original footage it destroys the constructed sense of occasion previously fashioned. Sadly, Weekend of a Champion’s well-meaning study of two men discussing their respective ‘art’ is a far too narcissistic affair for sustained enjoyment.
This review was originally published on 10 October, 2013 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.