In presenting us with the sumptuous period pic “The Horseman on the Roof,” Jean-Paul Rappeneau has proved what every French performer knows in his bones: “Cyrano” is a hard act to follow. Six years after directing Gerard Depardieu to nosy Gascon glory, Rappeneau returns with an oddly paced journey through a cholera-ridden Provence of the early 19th century. The $ 35 million “Roof” — much ballyhooed by producer Hachette for breaking local budget records — delivers an admirable re-creation of the Romantic era. But the pic, like its many cholera victims, goes from vivacious to lifeless. Students of expensive cinematic style, however, may not care.
The mega-franc production possess some box office trumps, some of which are boldly played. In an ostentatious display of brilliant location scouting and carefully lensed vistas, the sprawling, pristine Provence showcased here easily outclasses the lavender outback familiar to the readers of Peter Mayle.
The world of “Roof” is that of French literary giant Jean Giono, from whose home in the Provencal town of Manosque the atmospheric 1951 novel emerged to enthrall French readers. Giono’s Provence is harsh and wild, almost like the Far West.
Rappeneau shows his customary theatrical flair at moving costumed crowds through antique streets, stage-managing fist fights and choreographing unlikely escapes, Less successful is the script, which tries to sustain a narrative that is essentially the story of uninterrupted flight. Ennui is enhanced by giving the title role, played by Olivier Martinez, a personality as unbending as a toy soldier’s. The handsome young actor struggles with the unforgiving part throughout the film’s two hours and change.
Pic begins with a bang as Angelo (Martinez), an Italian officer and mama’s boy-turned-revolutionary against his country’s Hapsburg overlords, bolts from his hideout in Aix-en-Provence of 1832. His Austrian would-be assassins in hot pursuit, Angelo gallops inland to warn his fellow Italian exiles of the covert death squad at large.
But peril comes not just from human enemies. As Angelo Journeys upcountry, he sees the horror of a cholera epidemic: corpses piled high in villages, black clouds of crows fighting over human carrion, people retching and quivering in their death throes. Showing no fear, he eventually steals into the closed town of Manosque.
There his troubles multiply. Not only do his pursuers catch up with him, but the jittery, hysterical towns-people accuse him of poisoning their well. Chases , sword fights, even an appearance before a crazed magistrate (a nice cameo for Depardieu) come in quick succession before Angelo finds refuge on the rooftops of the town, hence the title.
When he eventually comes down, soaking and starving, he makes a soft landing in an opulent townhouse, where he’s fed by a mysterious noble-women (Juliette Binoche), who keeps the plot moving by stirring curiosity in Angelo’s heart.
Remainder of pic follows the two as they effortlessly — much too effortlessly — elude or outwit all comers in their picturesque meanderings. Secondary characters rise and fall by the wayside as the story moves from one unconnected episode to the next.
Binoche’s restrained, decorous perf as a restless noblewoman is utterly convincing. As dressed by costume designer Franca Squarciapino, Binoche looks and moves the part of a Romantic heroine, even if her traveling companion does not live up to his Byronic possibilities.
Francois Cluzet, as a saintly quack, and Isabelle Carre, as a bookish governess, are standouts in the secondary cast — as is the roguish wayfarer portrayed by veteran thesp Jean Yanne.
Rappeau tapped “Cyrano de Bergerac” composer Jean-Claude Petit for a score that keeps up with the galloping horseman, and vet lenser Thierry Arbogast never allows pic to fall into static postcard perfection.
A resonant subject to audiences in an age of AIDS, the Cholera epidemic is suitably horrifying yet presented without gruesomeness.