The focus on the tiny moments in The Melbourne Rendez-vous makes the documentary fun.
The focus on the tiny moments in The Melbourne Rendez-vous makes the documentary fun. Screenshot from The Melbourne Rendez-vous

In acknowledgement of the 2020 Olympics, which would have kicked off in Tokyo last week, the Criterion Collection is streaming its monumental collection 100 Years of Olympic Films on their streaming platform, the Criterion Channel. The collection includes 53 films and covers 41 editions of the Olympic Games, from Stockholm in 1912 to London in 2012. Every weekday for the next few weeks, we'll highlight a different moment and film from the last century of Olympic films.
The 1956 Summer Olympics were held in Melbourne, Australia, the first time the games had been held in the southern hemisphere. And the flip of seasons—that half of the planet experiences spring/summer during our fall/winter—required the events to take place unusually in late November, when the temperature in Australia reaches over 100 degrees in the shade.

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René Lucot's The Melbourne Rendez-vous, the wonderfully observant and deeply curious official film from the games, is obsessed with the tiny moments that compose the two week long affair, from the eating habits of the spectators to the athletes' rituals. If you're looking for a comprehensive, straightforward account of the 1956 games, go elsewhere—this documentary focuses almost entirely on track and field. But The Melbourne Rendez-vous's concentrated, cinematic, and almost whimsical gaze opens up the magic of the Olympics and the minutiae that goes into the legendary games.

One of the main focuses of the film is U.S. sprinter Bobby Morrow and his seemingly relaxed approach to his events. Lucot carefully parses this attitude through intent dissection of the runner's warm up: the care he puts into setting up his starting block; the attention he pays to the track, the equipment, his muscles; how and when he chooses to undress. You begin to understand that his relaxed attitude is a result of extreme and deliberate preparation that ultimately propels him to three gold medals.

Bobby Morrow preparing for a qualifying heat at the 1956 Olympics.
Bobby Morrow preparing for a qualifying heat at the 1956 Olympics. Screenshot from The Melbourne Rendez-vous
No habit is too small, too meaningless for this documentary—like the almost supernatural way shot putters summon the strength to hurl the ball across the field, pursing their lips, spinning the shot around in their hand, carefully furrowing the weight into their neck. You get the sense that the event is as much about mental acuity as it is physical strength.
A shotputter pursing his lips as he prepares to channel all his energy into throwing that weight as far as possible.
A shotputter pursing his lips as he prepares to channel all his energy into throwing that weight as far as possible. Screenshot from The Melbourne Rendez-vous
Lucot also tries to capture some of the atmosphere of the games by honing in on the athletes from Liberia, a country that would most likely get passed over in any other grand, official documentary.

He seems amused—almost in a patronizing way—by the nonchalance of the seven Liberian athletes at the games, who have no hope of winning in their first Olympic appearance. He never films them competing, but rather follows them to the beach where they seem to just be along for the ride. As are we.

Two Liberian athletes just laying on the beach.
Two Liberian athletes just sitting on the beach. Screenshot from The Melbourne Rendez-vous

I couldn't find a proper trailer for the film, so here's an opening clip from the film with an English voiceover. The Melbourne Rendez-vous is now streaming on Criterion Channel.