Romance with too much finance

THE HORSEMAN ON THE ROOF Jean-Paul Rappeneau (15); Gorgeous looks and lofty tone do not excuse an implausible confusion of Stendhal with Errol Flynn. By Adam Mars-Jones

When international cinema is discussed in cockney rhyming slang, an overheated melodrama is referred to as a "Juliette" (Juliette Binoche equals tosh). This likeable actress has appeared in a number of worthwhile films, but also in utter stinkers such as Damage and now The Horseman on the Roof. The new film, directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, is from the same stable as the Depardieu Cyrano de Bergerac, but it's a horse of a different colour.

The Horseman on the Roof is also a literary adaptation, but from a less impressive source than Cyrano, a 1951 novel by Jean Giono, set in 1832. Outside the protective medium of the book's prose, the story is a standard wish-fulfilment adventure, and its hero, Angelo, owes less to the novels of Stendhal (Giono's stated inspiration) than to the films of Errol Flynn. Angelo is fearless and invulnerable - when he falls off a roof he suffers only cuts and bruises - and has a code of honour so lofty as to be fatuous. When he sees in the distance the man who has betrayed his political cause (the liberation of Italy), he shouts out his name so that there can be a chase - simply pouncing on him would be ungentlemanly - and when the traitor goes down with cholera in mid-confrontation, Angelo doesn't hesitate to give him first aid. First aid in this context means ripping the victim's shirt off and rubbing him down with alcohol. What should convince you that we are closer here to Forever Amber than The Red and the Black is that this treatment is invariably a failure, until the hero is rubbing down someone he really cares for.

The actor who plays Angelo, Olivier Martinez, is male-model handsome, and doesn't manage, whatever ordeals his character has undergone, to look any worse than tousled. There may be actors who can address profound monologues to a tabby cat: "Beware of men when they're scared... maybe God wants to put an end to it all... what are you cats going to do without us?" Martinez isn't one of them.

In the course of his adventures, Angelo keeps writing to his mother - a revolutionary duchess in Milan - to keep her informed of developments. This seems like a clumsy narrative device even before he mentions, in one of these letters, that the postal system has collapsed, what with the cholera epidemic and all, so he can't send it to her. Still, he'll deliver it himself and then watch her while she reads it.

The cholera epidemic and its consequences - road blocks, oppressive quarantines, looting, lynch law - are the only novelties in the story, but Rappeneau has a problem here, too. The more grimly realistic he makes the epidemic, the more absurd it seems that his hero and heroine continue to inhabit a world of romantic impulse. He needs to get from Provence to Italy with money for the revolution, but he also feels honour bound to escort a headstrong young woman who is searching for her husband.

She's a marquise, but when they meet she is alone in her aunt's house in Manosque. It's raining, and Angelo and the cat break in through the roof to shelter in the attic. For someone in a deserted house during an epidemic, Pauline (Juliette Binoche) is very composed - in fact, she's done up like a wedding cake. She's fearless, too, which is handy. The two of them meet cute, and go on meeting cute. When he's trying to break through the cordon round the town, there she is again, wearing a stylish blue riding habit, and with a horse at her disposal. They and their horses can laugh at danger together.

Angelo and Pauline are supposed to be noble creatures, but it isn't always easy to think so. When Pauline disrupts a dinner party in Montjay, where she is first an object of reverence because of her rank, and then an object of horror because she has broken quarantine, audiences may find themselves siding with the traumatised diners. Their terror, their attempts to fumigate the intruder, may not be dignified, but at least they have a grasp of their reality. They know that the reason Pauline can laugh at the cholera bacillus is not because she is a noble being, or even medically knowledgeable, but because she is the heroine of a romantic novel. And they're not.

It's the same thing when Angelo allows himself to be quarantined, at one point, so as to keep watch over Pauline. All very high minded, unless you're one of the hapless proles whom he has bribed the guards to displace so he can be near his beloved, in which case it's likely to seem high handed. It's odd that there's no disaffected murmur from the other detainees: bloody toffs with saddlebags full of money for the revolution disturbing ordinary decent people trying to get a kip on cholera-infected straw... but by now it's clear that Rappeneau greatly overestimates the appeal of his protagonists.

The Horseman on the Roof is infallibly pictorial, but hardly ever cinematic in any dynamic way. Rappeneau has put together a lovely collection of landscapes and cloud formations. Much effort has been put into the period details of dress and decor, to cater for that substantial minority of film-goers who wonder, even when shown a plague house, whether those curtains would look good in the sitting room. The trouble is that the story he tells is neither plausible nor engaging.

At the end of the film, when all narrative momentum has been spent, and voice-overs are beginning to bump into each other like trucks in a siding, Rappeneau shows us Pauline in her chateau writing a letter to Angelo. Binoche is a beautiful woman who many people would be happy to rub down with alcohol whether she was feeling poorly or not, and the camera needs no excuse to look at her. But the director chooses to compose the image in strict imitation of a celebrated Vermeer.

Why? What for? Well, for the same reason that Jean-Claude Petit's "original music" has, in fact, been quoting, arranging and paraphrasing Brahms intermezzos for the past two hours (hopelessly anachronistic, but then something closer to the actual music of 1832 would lack that swoony, late-romantic feel). Because international audiences will always want to think that French movies are art, with or without Gerard Depardieu (whose cameo in The Horseman on the Roof lasts perhaps a minute). Vermeer, Brahms, chuck it all in. They'll lap it up.

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