You heard it here first: 1996 will be the year that puts French cinema back on the map, at long last. With both Purple Noon's re-release and the arrival of The Visitors (the highest-grossing French film of all time) later this year, we're guaranteed a couple of hits. But the first of these French delicacies to arrive will be The Horseman on the Roof.
Rumored to be the most expensive film ever shot in France, The Horseman on the Roof is the film adaptation of Jean Giono's popular novel of the same name. Directed by Cyrano de Bergerac's Jean-Paul Rappeneau, this tale of love and tragedy in 1830s France is an exquisite period piece, full of settings and photography as lush as its story line.
This story involves an Italian revolutionary named Angelo (Olivier Martinez), on the run from the law as well as the cholera epidemic that was sweeping Europe at the time. Forced into France to try to find his compatriots, Angelo takes refuge in the home of the mysterious Pauline (Juliette Binoche), and the two begin to grow close.
As the cholera sweeps across France as well, Angelo finds himself hunted by the locals, who fear him as a carrier of the disease. Together with Pauline, the two strike out across the countryside, each in search of their own peace.
The film, full of spectacular action scenes as well as touching or romantic moments between the two principals, is a careful blend of the two genres that works very well. Special kudos to the actors, especially Binoche, who plays her role as the noble woman with a cryptic goal (I won't give it away) superbly. The enormous cast of both speaking parts and extras is handled well, and the scenes are perfectly choreographed.
The Horseman's one flaw is its tendency to fall into what I call French Movie Syndrome, with the characters spending long stretches of time in monologues, reminiscing about characters and places we've never met or never seen. It's here that the viewer tends to doze off in hopes of a swordfight or a fire.
Otherwise, I have few complaints. The Horseman on the Roof should be accessible to the same audience that made Il Postino a success, and can be enjoyed by a wide range of viewers.
(Oh, and watch for a cameo by Gerard Depardieu.)
Aka Le Hussard Sur Le Toit.
That is not Ralph Macchio behind Juliette Binoche.