HORSEMAN ON THE ROOF (LE HUSSARD SUR LE TOIT) (France, 1995) ***
The movie retains its overall Gallic nature but replaces the frequent dialogues/monologues (which, when good, are very very good, and when pretentious, are bad) with action that reminds you of American swashbucklers or westerns. It also has the romance of 19th century French novels, with echoes of today's Harlequin stories. And it is a period road-movie.
All this with exemplary, breathless tempo and esthetic values of the highest order. These cover magnificent landscapes, townscapes and villagescapes of Provence, the last two made possible by the large number of old picturesque places that one can find in France.
The events take place in 1832. After the fall of Napoleon and the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna that set Europe on the road to conservatism and anti-nationalism, Italy, under the domination of the Austrian Empire, was fragmented into small kingdoms whose rulers were puppets,
The Risorgimento (re-birth) movement was that of a period that eventually led to Italian unification. The secret society of the Carbonari (literally "coalmen") was active in trying to throw off the Austrian yoke. In our story, unfamiliar actor Olivier Martinez plays Angelo Pardi. He is a nobleman and a revolutionary from Piedmont (Piedmont-Sardinia was the most important of the Italian states) and a Colonel in the Hussars. (Never mind that, as was common then and earlier, his commission was bought by his mother).
Angelo, condemned to death in his country, has, like many other revolutionaries, fled to neighboring France. There, he and his group have collected gold from French sympathizers. Angelo now wants to return home secretly, to give the funds to the cause.
When I first saw Olivier Martinez on the screen, he looked like a much taller, handsomer and smarter Tom Cruise. The facial resemblance soon waned but the other attributes remained.
While Angelo is attempting to go to Piedmont, cholera breaks out in Provence. The monstrous epidemic, for which there is no known cure, makes for mass hysteria. The helplessness of the people is tragic. As the corpses pile up (in gruesome, gory images that, however, are used functionally and not exploited for effect), lynch mobs form. One of them attacks Angelo who is accused to be "a well-poisoner." That's when, among his other escape tactics, he goes up on a roof. He meets there a beautiful, healthy tiger cat who, I fervently hoped, would avoid extermination. He then takes refuge in a house where familiar actress Juliette Binoche makes a fairy-tale-like apparition. She gives no name (we later learn that it is Pauline), she helps Angelo ... and disappears.
Angelo must flee an array of dangers: Austrian agents who try to assassinate him, traitors from within the Carbonari, panicky peasants, the cholera itself, horse soldiers who close down borders and go after those who try to cross them.
The road leads him to a reunion with Pauline, who is from another, cholera-free area. The purpose of her peregrinations remains mysterious, yet Angelo, taken with her, gallantly offers to deviate from his route and take her where she wants.
The film, from its very start, is a fine period and action work - and not a condescending one for simple-minded audiences. The couple's trek, on horseback, is fraught with dangers, episodes and physical prowess by Angelo. In Hollywood fashion he is the indestructible hero who faces many soldiers and comes through victorious and unscathed, The improbability of all that is redeemed by the exceptionally beautiful esthetic values of the film . Giono would have loved the views of "his" Provence, so well photographed and scored.
The sights, whether appalling in their views of cholera, or gorgeous in the views of nature, are the center of the movie. The two protagonists come next. Neither engages in the familiar expressions of young people going through a love phase. The film is lush but has no lust. The active romance keeps getting postponed and when it is activated, it remains chaste, This comes after the most effective massage in film history, when Angelo's rubdown saves cholera-stricken Pauline.
Angelo and Pauline have aristocratic souls , are subdued and roper, along the lines of the Stendhalian ethics that writer Jean Giono admired. It takes ages for them even to reveal their names. It takes 97 minutes for the first kiss to come. And the film's end, though positive, is not a real closure. (Giono wrote a quartet of novels around Angelo, three of them including Pauline).
A major difference between this and other adventure-love tales is that beyond the couple, not a single character stays long on the screen. Jean Yanne, as a peddler encountered, has more time than others. The rest are fugitive appearances, including a cameo by Francois Cluzet, the doctor that gives Angelo medical hints, and Gerard Depardieu, as a fleeing police superintendent. Another difference is that the movie is non-judgmental. It may take a dim view of a population crazed by fear of cholera, or a satirical view of opportunists (Jean Yanne or the merchant selling services to quarantined people) and of the scared town notables who are Pauline's friends. Yet, as Jean Renoir used to say, "everyone has his reasons." There are no real villains beside the Austrian secret service killers.
In addition to its 19th century romanticism, "Horseman" uses the even older epistolary novel form. Angelo regularly writes his mother while his voice tells us the text, informative and often beautiful. Interestingly, it is partly to live up to his mother's great expectations that Angelo becomes a hero -- no traditional, cliched cowardly Mama's boy, he. But above all, while the same director' s "Cyrano de Bergerac" was carried by the lyricism of the spoken words, here it is the lyricism of the sights that carries the movie.