“Jappeloup” takes an essentially self-contained, relatively decorous sport — show jumping — and turns it into a suspenseful, nail-biting series of death-defying equine leaps. French helmer Christian Duguay uses every trick in the genre playbook — slo-mo action, a sweeping score, endless reactive cutaways and shamelessly manipulative editing — to goose viewers viscerally. Like “Seabiscuit,” the film is based on the true story of a legendary horse, and like just about every horse movie ever produced, it qualifies as quintessential family fare. With its stellar cast and national equine hero, the film should make commercial hay at home upon its March 13 local release.
Were the film in English, its worldwide appeal would be assured. But since the pic’s effectiveness stems largely from the fact that its writer-star, Guillaume Canet, is a professional-level jumper, a remake with someone else would make little sense. A limited run, followed by a well-dubbed wider release, might yield respectable B.O. returns in non-Francophone venues.
At first, the film follows Jappeloup and his future champion rider in parallel plotlines. While the horse trains and bonds with a glowing young girl, Raphaelle (Lou de Laage), whose doting grandfather (Jacques Higelin) bought him, Pierre (Canet) has grown to become a promising equestrian, torn between a lucrative law career and the show-jumping circuit. He is too prideful and ambitious to accept occasional defeat on the racetrack, yet he’s also quite fond of his father, Serge (Daniel Auteuil, typically excellent), who transformed their farm into a riding school to further his son’s career. If waffling Pierre reps the problematic hero who must learn to choose love of sport over love of profit, Serge steadfastly occupies the film’s moral center, tirelessly dispensing unconditional love and tactful wisdom, and forming, along with wife Arlette (Marie Bunuel), the ideal pastoral family.
The first meeting between man and horse hardly ranks as prophetic: Pierre cavalierly rejects Jappeloup as too young, too ill trained and too diminutive (he is indeed much smaller than his rivals). A couple of years later, Serge insists on buying him, accompanied by a now-nubile Raphaelle as handler and stablegirl. But it is fellow horseperson Nadia (Marina Hands, herself a topnotch equestrienne), who captures, and returns, Pierre’s romantic interest in scrupulously G-rated fashion.
Much of the film is given over to show-jumping practice and competitions. Pierre beams through triumphs and broods through failures (Canet gives first-class sulk), until he gets his comeuppance at the Tokyo Olympics when Jappeloup unceremoniously dumps him at a key hurdle. Pierre must then learn from Raphaelle to love his noble steed more than winning, showering him with pats and kisses and promptly garnering victories in return.
Aside from editor Richard Marizy’s slickly effective cutting and some fine human and horse performances, “Jappeloup” brings nothing new to an old-fashioned genre.