40 Love (First Run Features, NR)

The film finds the universal within a small story about ordinary people going about their daily lives.


40 Love is one of the more unusual sports films I’ve ever come across. It avoids the usual jock-flick clichés, from the training montage to the monster parents to the inspirationally uplifting conclusion, which we’ve come to expect from American sports films. It’s a far better picture because of that, although those who come looking for the usual clichés may find themselves disappointed in this understated, but captivating film.

Two stories run in parallel in 40 Love: that of Ugo Sauvage (newcomer Charles Merienne), a talented 11-year-old who wants to go to the top of the tennis world, and his father Jerome (Olivier Gourmet), whose life is in a downward spiral. Jerome loses his job as a retail store manager and finds that past success guarantees nothing. In this job market, he’s a little too old, not sufficiently credentialed, and lacking the firm command of English his younger competitors possess. He tries to develop his own business, but that doesn’t go as planned, and in the middle of it all, his wife (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) leaves him, as well. Jerome is a regular Willy Loman—in other words, cast out by the very system that he embraced.

For Ugo, on the other hand, everything seems to be coming up roses. He’s identified by his coach (Vimala Pons) as an outstanding regional player and is offered the chance to play in a competitive league. If he wins a particular tournament, he will have the chance to train full-time at the national sports center in Paris. In addition, a physical exam uncovers an important characteristic that will make it easier for Ugo to succeed at professional tennis—a naturally low heartbeat—which means he will not become fatigued as quickly as his opponents.

Having a lot of time on his hands, and needing some success in his life, Jerome becomes more involved with Ugo’s coaching. He’s not a domineering sports dad, but still manages to communicate a message about the importance of success, which turns out to have unexpected consequences.

One of the refreshing aspects of 40 Love is that the coaches and trainers charged with developing Ugo’s tennis abilities are portrayed as professionals who remain calm during training and matches. There’s none of the harangues typical of coaching behavior in American movies, and certainly no destructive put-downs when a player doesn’t perform well. The boys in the tennis league, Ugo included, also come off as fairly normal kids who enjoy their sport and want to succeed, but don’t treat each match as a life-or-death matter.

40 Love is the first film by Stéphane Demoustier, who also wrote the screenplay with Gaëlle Macé, and it shows off his gift for cinematic storytelling. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are among the producers, and in many ways, this feels like a Dardenne Brothers film in the way that it finds the universal within a small story about ordinary people going about their daily lives. The screenplay of 40 Love is partly based on true events, but you don’t need to know anything about the story behind the story, or even about tennis, to understand and appreciate this film.

Whoever chose 40 Love for the American title (the French title is Terre Battue, referring to the crushed brick that forms the surface of clay tennis courts, including those upon which the French Open is played) didn’t do this film any favors. First of all, the American title will be mystifying to anyone not familiar with tennis (in the peculiar scoring system of tennis, a score of 40-love means the server has won the first three points and the receiver none, and needs just one more point to win the game), and may put them off finding out what it is about. Second, the reference to a score suggests a typical sports movie, which may dissuade people who do understand what the title means.

The only extra on the disc is trailer gallery of other films distributed by First Run Features. | Sarah Boslaugh

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