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Trapeze Artist Becomes a Quadriplegic and Still Flies: Olivier Meyrou's Acrobat

03/27/2014 02:18 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2014
  • Karin Badt Associate Professor of Cinema and Theater in Paris

It was my favorite film at the recent Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival: Olivier Meyrou's Acrobat, about trapeze artist Fabrice Champion, once a performer for the prestigious Les Arts Sauts troupe in Paris, who became a quadriplegic after he collided with another trapeze artist in the air.

The film begins with Champion rising from his hospital bed, when he has recently learned he can no longer use his legs. This first image is a shock. Rather than the bitterness and despair one would imagine, one sees an angelic face: a man who simply smiles and tries to figure out how he can lift his body into a wheelchair.

The movie continues with similarly surprising images: Champion cheerfully calling to two hefty guys in a stairwell, to ask them to carry him up four flights of stairs to see his girlfriend -- which leads us wondering how he will ever get down. It also leads us to wonder what happens in his quotidian experience when he finds himself alone. No family seems present in his life. The girlfriend soon disappears.

Still the film does not dwell on suffering. The film director, who followed Champion for over a decade, jumps another few years to Champion who has decided he needs to do something active with his time: i.e., become an acrobatics instructor for acrobats preparing for their exams. His eyes glow with passion as he watches his students master feats of flying that he used to do.

Another jump-cut in time and we see Champion once more, with two young men, Matias and Alex, with whom he has evidently developed a close acrobatic relationship.

A parenthesis: In French, the title of the film is different from the English, and it is a shame the original did not translate. The title is Parade, which means "spotter" -- or more interestingly, in French, "the person who assures the other."

I know all about "parades." It is why I personally go to the circus every week, here in Paris at the "Noctambules," to do acrobatics. It is certainly not because I have any illusion of becoming a Nadia Comaneci. It is because of the convivial atmosphere of parades: the young women and men who generously hold you while you flip -- amongst laughter and many falls. We all "parade" each other. We are each other's teachers: "Lift your head higher," one says kindly. "You forgot your arms," says another.

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These two young men in the film look adoringly at Fabrice Champion, as he helps them with their flips. Then they help Fabrice in turn. They decide to do an acrobatic act together, where Fabrice, without any function of his legs, lifts himself over their shoulders.

The three laugh in brotherly complicity.

I know that feeling well.

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But Fabrice is more than a fellow acrobat. He becomes a mentor, and teaches the two young men how to "flip" outside the circus.

"Never lose your connection with your desire!" says Fabrice, his angelic eyes beaming. "It is so important. To live connected to your desire."

It is a passionate enlightened view -- from someone no longer connected with half his body. It leads to the three brainstorming about what it means to be an "acrobat." "It is more than jumping and leaping," they conclude. "There is an acrobatic spirit."

But how to define this spirit eludes them.

The penultimate shot of the film is a shot of the two "parades" hugging, the camera spinning with their embrace. Fabrice is no longer with them.

But his spirit continues. The film ends with an image of his eager eyes, and the voice-over of one of his poems:

"I laugh for the pleasure of flying, I laugh because I am free. I laugh because I love those who are around me. There is a peak of pleasure that I feel in my heart the moment I leave solidity to find myself in space. I fly. I invade space. Space invades me."