In 1971, following a string of tense and claustrophobic character studies that included his debut Knife in the Water, the Catherine Deneuve psychological thriller Repulsion, the Samuel Beckett-tinged absurdist paranoia tale Cul-de-sac, and culminating in the smash success of the terrifying classic Rosemary’s Baby, director Roman Polanski decided he’d switch gears as it were and make a film about his friend and Formula One racing champion Jackie Stewart.
The then thirty-nine year-old Polanksi hadn’t had any experience with documentaries, so he enlisted the help of the little-known filmmaker Frank Simon to direct (though Polanski now claims he, in actuality, directed the entire film himself) to chronicle in intimate detail three days in the life of a racer out to win the Monaco Grand Prix. Weekend of a Champion premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1972, had a very brief theatrical release in Europe thereafter, and was then largely forgotten until the archive in possession of the film’s original negative got in contact with Polanski forty years later to ask whether they should keep it or not.
Polanski’s answer must have been an emphatic and perhaps narcissistic yes because the film itself first seems like nothing more than a random vanity project. Polanski was a massive racing fan, so he used his success and connections to simply gain unprecedented access to get as close to the F1 racing circuit as he could, yet the film ends up coming across as much more than that. Polanski himself pops up onscreen throughout the proceedings to hobnob with the glamorous 1970s celebrities and important names that populated the media frenzy surrounding the Grand Prix in those days, but the meaningful focus and most important presence in the film belongs to Stewart, of whom Polanski is quite interestingly enamored. Whether in the garage managing the tune-ups for his crew, dodging the photographers and endless autograph seekers, or having breakfast in his hotel suite on the morning of his qualifying runs, Stewart and his acute attention towards the sport itself always remains front and center.
Specifically, the film and Stewart’s attention are focused on the aspect of safety within the sport that, at the time, ostensibly amounted to nil. Aside from the lack of barriers between the race and the crews which allowed Polanski’s camera to literally be right on the track, Stewart and especially his wife Helen are seen constantly facing the realization that in all seriousness this sport is a matter of life and the championship or a fiery and tragic death.
It’s all framed around the jet-setting location of Monaco with its cliffside villas and countless yachts that reiterate a sort of palatial splendor that you could only remember from something like a James Bond movie. Yet to Stewart the eye-candy is only a backdrop, but a backdrop he knows almost everything about. In a scene a few days before the race, Stewart brings Polanski around the track in a regular car to show him the techniques he uses going into certain turns or how he will anticipate a tricky curb through his almost biological connection with his car, which highlights just how good a primer on the sport of racing Weekend of a Champion is. Stewart’s meticulousness is what prepares him going into the championship, and Polanski is able to capture those details that are able to familiarize any audience member with the intricacies in a fairly entertaining way.
Just when we think the breathless racing scenes are over, the film abruptly pulls back to reveal both Polanski and Stewart watching the film we were watching in the very same hotel suite in Monaco they were in in 1971. The original film sported a runtime of a rapid eighty minutes, but for its contemporary release Polanski edited in this present-day coda that runs about twenty minutes and unfortunately cheapens the overall film. The old timers do get into the ways in which the sport’s safety has changed for the best—regrettably at the expense of the death of many of Stewart’s old friends—as well as a bit more backstory about Stewart himself—like his poignant admission that he dropped out of school at 15 due to a serious case of undisclosed dyslexia—but this flash forward in time reeks of being DVD supplemental material. It doesn’t have much bearing on the documentary itself and doesn’t present itself as a necessity to the narrative.
When you look at it, Weekend of a Champion does fit nicely into Polanki’s oeuvre of solitary figures surrounded by overpowering outside forces. Like Rosemary or even later with Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown, Jackie Stewart is a man caught up in a whirlwind that he can’t hope to contain but only attempt to understand, and thus it’s the ride itself that becomes the true takeaway from the film. It may seem minor, but if you want to be a Polanski completist then Weekend of a Champion is not to be missed.