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Man on Wire

Man on Wire

by Kavish Chetty / 21.05.2009

In 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit, an egomaniacal tightrope-artist of some extraordinary talent, enlisted a gang of hippies and adoring fans/friends to plot and execute his most ambitious high-wire walk to date. 417 metres high, amongst the pastel-coloured clouds of the January sky, he’d walk, mince and swagger between the towers of the World Trade Centre.

Director James Marsh tells this giddying narrative by way of archive footage, dramatic reconstruction and interviews – all enigmatically pieced together to create a coherent crime caper, as he documents the corralling of the conniving associates, the disciplined practice regimen, the inveigling of their way into the towers, and the climactic walk across the wires. In interstitial interview material, Philipe Petit reveals himself as the only kind of genuinely sociopathic, self-obsessed showman who would dare such an ambitious feat. Bug-eyed, he wildly gesticulates, his French inflection stabbing at his monologues, largely comprised of self-marvel at his wild and unblemished youthful vigour.

When the interviews fade out, reconstructions in startling monochrome show the patience and artistry of Petit and his gang; spending hours hiding beneath canvass, as night-shift guards stalk the stairways of the towers; stripping down to moonlit nudity to search for an arrow shot across the towers… Although the success of the break-in is a foregone conclusion, Marsh is expertly able to preserve the suspense and drama of the original escapade. This film succeeds on two levels, then – as a cinematic retelling of Petit’s autobiographical book ‘To Reach the Clouds’, and as a thrillingly ambiguous crime caper.

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While Petit’s masterpiece in the sky elicited gasps and pointed forefingers from the ant-like onlookers far below, he was subsequently arrested. But where he was eventually and inevitably released a hero, his childhood friends, without whom the act would have remained nothing more than a fantasy of self-worth, were deported, and their relationships frazzled in the ensuing effervescent celebrity. So even before the grand climax, that dizzying spectacle of human athleticism, the interviews with Petit’s gang are often teary or sallow-cheeked, pointing out the fragility of human relationship, with former girlfriend Annie even chokingly quoted as “Sometimes it is beautiful that way.”

James Marsh should be thoroughly congratulated. Not only is this engaging cinema, it is documentary making as dextrous as its lissome subject.

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