New film places downfall of famous cyclist on pressure of sport


Flemish director Koen Mortier’s new film Angel looks at the death of Belgian cyclist Frank Vandenbroucke through the eyes of the last person to see him alive

‘We’re all whores’

Belgium was shocked by the headline that emerged in October of 2009: Frank Vandenbroucke, once Belgium’s greatest cyclist, was dead at the age of 34. The story was the stuff of tabloids: He died in Senegal in a cheap motel room, where he had spent the night with a prostitute.

Considering Vandenbroucke’s infamous problems with doping, dramatic conflicts both professional and personal and a suicide attempt, it was tragic but not entirely hard to believe. The cause of death was ruled as a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot that has travelled to the lung.

But because of a robbery of some personal possessions, the family refusing to allow a toxicology test and inconsistencies between witness statements and the coroner’s report, the entire case was shrouded in mysteries that have never been fully cleared up.

Which naturally led to all manner of speculation and also to Flemish author Dimitri Verhulst’s novella Monoloog van iemand die het gewoon werd tegen zichzelf te praten (Monologue of Someone Who Got Used to Talking to Herself).

‘His last hope of rescue’

Verhulst’s monologue is not from the point of view of Vandenbroucke or his friend who was with him in Africa. Not from the ex-wife or the family back home. But of the prostitute back in Senegal, held for several months on suspicion of murder before finally being cleared of any charges.

Flemish filmmaker Koen Mortier has now made a film based on the book, which is in cinemas starting today. In Un Ange (Angel), a famous Belgian cyclist named Thierry (Vincent Rottiers) travels to Senegal and falls passionately in love with a prostitute named Fae (Fatou N’Diaye) after only a few hours in her company.

“Both characters want to be loved, understood and respected,” says Mortier. “They are mostly looking for themselves: How did they end up in this situation and how should they continue? I wanted to show the hope, despair and moments that they had to go through when searching for a better life.”

It’s the urge to perform better and to win more that finally ruins them

- Koen Mortier

While Mortier admits that Angel is based on the story of Vandenbroucke, he emphasises that – like Verhulst’s book – it’s purely fiction. The dialogue and the feelings shared between the characters are not based on biographical references.

Mortier’s style in the film – dark, dreamy, shadowy – sets the scene for fantasy sequences in which Thierry breaks down under pressure from his coach, team and fans. He is losing his mind, and never quite so fast as on this fateful holiday.

“The despair is strongest with Thierry,” says Mortier. “He can’t go on. He seems to see Fae as his last hope of rescue. She’s a strong woman who will do anything to get a grip on her life. But her environment and situation simply won’t allow this.”

Not only does the story put a spotlight on society’s immense expectations of world-class athletes, it also makes clear that there are many kinds of ways to sell your body for money. “It’s no different for me,” says Thierry in the film. “We’re all whores.”

“Thierry was very talented as a young cyclist,” says Mortier. “He was completely capable of winning the big races, a real champion. But in the end, it turned out completely different. This story can be a reflection of a lot of young sport heroes.”

He points to an excess of money and the pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs, which can lead to other forms of drug abuse. For Vandenbroucke, it was allegedly cocaine. “It’s the urge to perform better and to win more that finally ruins them.”

Angel (Engel in Dutch) is playing now in Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent

Photos: French actors Vincent Rottiers and Fatou N’Diaye as Thierry and Fae in Un Ange
©Courtesy Paradiso Films BE