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.

n On release from tomorrow

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little