For many, Hélène Boucher is first and foremost the name of a high school, a college or a gymnasium – around fifty schools and twenty sports halls bear her surname in France – before it was associated with the aviation pioneers of the early 20th century. For Michèle and Michel-Henri Gensbittel, Hélène Boucher (1908-1934) became a subject of study by chance, after the discovery of boxes belonging to the Boucher family, in a cellar in Yermenonville, in Eure-et-Loir.
The work of this couple of passionate historians is at the origin of the film directed by Mike Baudoncq, Léno by Hélène Boucher, which allows us to discover, with freshness and poetry, the short life of this young woman “simple, loyal comrade and charming [which] was simply breaking world records,” as his contemporary Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) described it.
The staging is intimate, with a first-person narration, and family, Katia Baudoncq, the director’s wife, interpreting the female pilot during the fictional scenes – a promising first role. Among the witnesses, in addition to the prolific couple of historians, former pilots, such as Catherine Maunoury, double world champion in aerobatics and granddaughter of Hélène Boucher.
A world of men
While “Léno”, contraction of the first names of two of her grandfathers, Léon and Noël, struggles to find her way, a tragedy will decide for her: her fiancé dies burned in a plane accident. To avenge him, Hélène Boucher wants to pilot. The training center of Mont-de-Marsan (Landes) has preserved traces of the one who wanted to “eat everything”.
From now on, Léno is fully committed, in the Paris-Saigon then in the 24 Hours of Angers – in this world of men, she must hold the handle alone for 1,645 kilometers. Seduced by her courage, the aerobatic ace Michel Détroyat gave her lessons: she broke the female altitude record, began aerobatics and attracted attention.
In this light, the reconstitution of his meeting with Louis Renault is edifying. When the French boss offers him a demonstration at the controls of his latest plane, he declares: “If a woman manages to fly it, it will prove that everyone can do it. Léno took it upon herself and became the face of the brand. Before launching, with the Caudron C.450, in absolute speed records. On August 11, 1934, at 445 km/h, she beat the world record, held until then by a man. At 26, Hélène Boucher is rich, famous and independent.
“By choosing our profession, we choose our death,” his friend Mermoz had told him. After breaking six world records in just three years of riding, Léno, after the crash that cost her her life on November 30, 1934, was the first woman to receive a tribute at Les Invalides.