It’s shaping up to be a good year for horse movies after “Seabiscuit” Stateside and now the French-bred “Mister V.,” a powerful colt of a movie by second-time director Emilie Deleuze, whose “New Dawn” (Peau neuve) played Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight in ’99. An unsentimental, tautly told tale of a man fascinated by the eponymous wild stallion who killed his brother, pic could gallop on to frisky business, especially in Europe, with sensitive marketing after its October release in Gaul.
When trainer Luigi Lucatelli (Patrick Catalifo) buys the high-strung, unbroken Mister V. at auction, Luigi’s brother, Lucas (Mathieu Demy, son of late helmer Jacques), a scientist studying the movement of horses, is perplexed by the purchase — until he realizes Luigi is working a scam bankrolled by smarmy Belgian breeder Moigne (Jean-Louis Richard). Having driven the price up at auction with Moigne’s help, Luigi plans an “accident” to befall Mister V. so he can claim the full auction price back on insurance, pay off Moigne and take a cut for himself.
But once the brothers get Mister V. back to Luigi’s stables, the stallion proves himself to be a potential world-class jumper when he leaps an impossibly high wall. Luigi has a change of heart and decides to train the horse. Unfortunately, evil-tempered Mister V. kicks him in the head, killing him.
Lucas takes a leave of absence from the agricultural institute he works at (Deleuze’s “New Dawn” also focused on characters in the process of reinventing themselves) to help out his newly widowed sister-in-law, Cecile (smoldering Aure Atika), for whom he’s always carried a torch. Stable hand Jean-Francois (Gerald Thomassin) votes for having the murderous nag put down; but Cecile, unaware of Luigi’s insurance scam, decides to honor his ambition to train the horse.
Lucas and Cecile end up tumbling into bed together, a short-lived liaison that doesn’t evolve the way one would expect. Mister V. proves more resistant to Lucas’ charms, but man and beast gradually begin to walk in step, with Lucas even teaching the horse to tap dance. Meanwhile, there’s still the lingering problem of Moigne, who wants his money back. Final act resolves all problems, perhaps a trifle too neatly.
After the weird, intriguing shot of cantering horse flesh over the opening credits, “Mister V.” settles into being a more naturalistic exercise, but one still heightened by surreal touches — extreme closeups of horse and human eyes, disorienting cranes shots, etc. Deleuze’s clear-eyed investigation of the awkward, inexplicable bond between man and animal eschews anthropomorphism while still respectfully conveying an animal’s intelligence and emotional range.
The horse — whose real name is being withheld by its owner –snorts and whinnies its way through one of the great equine performances of recent memory. Demy, with his long lashes and Roman nose, has great on-screen chemistry with his maned co-star, better even than with two-legged Atika.
Jean-Philippe Bouyer’s low-lit lensing turns the stables (filmed near Limousin) into a sinister place of danger, and catches both animal and human thesps at their best, enhanced by Mathilde Muyard’s rhythmic snipping. Sound design and music play key roles in the dialogue-light pic, and running time is just right.