Strength of Character

Louis Cyr: The Strongest Man in the World
(Canada, 131 min.)
Dir. Daniel Roby, Writ. Sylvain Guy
Starring: Antoine Bertrand, Rose-Maïté Erkoreka, Guillaume, Gilbert Sicotte, Gil Bellows, Elaine Gagnon.
Louis Cyr earned the title of “strongest man in the world” in during his impressive feats of the late 1800s and many of his records have yet to be broken. He was a man of burly brawn and Louis Cyr, the Canuck biopic that tells his story, leaves little doubt of his unparalleled strength. It’s not the strongest film in the world, but Louis Cyr is nevertheless a grand, stately heritage pic that is built as solidly as the man whose life it dramatizes.

Antoine Bertrand, who cracked us up as the wily friend with no name in 2011’s Starbuck, gives an impressive performance as the legendary strongman Louis Cyr. The film begins with Cyr as a modest ex-pat, doing blue-collar work in the USA and using his muscles to do the work of multiple men so that he can earn enough money to provide for his family. Times are tough for the Cyrs and other Quebecers working amidst the Anglophone Americans and the Irish immigrants. Taunted for being inferior, presumably due to questions of language, Louis Cyr defends his family honour and moves an enormous boulder to ward off any of the ruffians who give his kid brother a hard time.

It takes the strength of six men to lift the 500-pound rock that Cyr raised himself. The feat of awesome strength leads to a job offer and the prospect of a better life elsewhere, so Louis ships off with his soon-to-be-wife Mélina (Rose-Maïté Erkoreka) and uses his brawn for better means than moving rocks. The rest is history.

Louis Cyr follows a conventional biopic route of showing the rise of a legendary figure and the legacy he left behind. The film is framed as a storytelling narrative in which Cyr’s colleague Horace Barré (Guillaume Cyr, no relation to Louis) relates to Louis’s daughter, Émilina (Elaine Gagnon), the tale of Louis’s rise from ex-pat outsider to national hero. The nostalgic storytelling intercuts Louis’s rigorous training and record-setting performances. His strength is a tale to behold, especially when one watches him lift 4337 pounds of spectators on his back during one performance.

There are only so many bouts of weightlifting, though, that one can watch before one grows tired. At a whopping 131 minutes, which is relatively short for a biopic but comparatively long for a Canadian film, Louis Cyr’s repetitive dance of a feat of strength followed by a story that builds up the importance of said feat grows awfully repetitive. There’s little rise in the action or complication in Cyr’s endeavour to make this heritage pic as engaging as it needs to be to sustain one’s interest for so long. How so many audiences showed up repeatedly to watch a man lift weights is astonishing.

This latter point, though, is where Louis Cyr really does the heavy lifting. The film shows that Cyr maintained an unwavering code with his managers, including one played by a memorable Gilbert Sicotte, that his performances must always be the real deal. “Put up or shut up,” Louis says more often than once. Strongmen before Louis’s day put on a good show, but Louis’s display always ensured that the weights were as heavy as the MC proclaimed them to be.

What Horace recounts to Émilina—who, even as an adult, remains scorned that her father wouldn’t let her run off and join the circus—is the message that underlies Cyr’s appeal to the masses during the spectacular weightlifting show that toured around the world. A man needs to be as strong on the inside as he appears to be on the outside. Strength of character matters far more than pumping iron for show.

Louis grasps the importance of his profile in the national consciousness. In one particularly notable scene, he coaches Horace (whose superior physique and training should allow him to exceed Louis in strength) how to be stronger. Louis says that lifting rocks and weights offers an outward display of the strength of his spirit. The show of physical force, for Louis, is symbolic for how a modest man from Quebec is even stronger than the wealthier, more culturally savvy men that pay him for show. The echoes of cultural difference and prejudice ring throughout Louis’s trip and his rise to fame. Billboards proclaim the arrival of the Anglicized “Lewis Cyr” while Louis’s own manager (Cliff Saunders) butchers his three-letter name with comically ignorant mispronunciation. Louis embodies the strength of not just a man, Louis Cyr says, but of a people.

Louis Cyr is an admirable effort with enough heart to match its robust character. The production value of the film is certainly unparalleled for the Canadian films of 2013: the costumes by Carmen Alie and the cinematography by Nicholas Bolduc (Rebelle, Enemy) offer some of the best craftsmanship and aesthetics for the year. The imposing score by Jorane is a notably grandiose orchestration that sets just the right mood for situating Louis’s story as a feat of historical and cultural significance and for compensating in dramatic engagement when the story of the film starts to sag. (The opening overture also gets the film off to a rousing start.)

Louis Cyr is most notable though for the commanding performance by Antoine Bertrand. Bertrand does some impressive physical feats mimicking Cyr’s intense workout and he has the heart and humour to bring out the greater aspects of character underlying Louis’s struggle. To watch him feign interest and delight to mask his illiteracy at the risk of offending Mélina when she offers him a love letter for their anniversary is to get a greater sense of the man than just his awesome strength. The strength of spirit Bertrand easily matches the weight that Cyr himself could lift.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Louis Cyr is now available on home video.