The Horseman On The Roof Review
The Horseman On The Roof culminated a glorious ten year golden era of French big-budget superproductions - an era that included Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) and Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot (1994), as well as the Marcel Pagnol adaptations of Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (1986), and Yves Robert’s La Gloire de Mon Père and Le Château de Ma Mère (1990). These films were of the highest production values and, coming from strong literary sources and adapted by the very best established writers and directors the French cinema industry had to offer, they had strong plot-lines, scripts and production designs that rivalled and surpassed the comparatively formulaic blockbusters being turned out by Hollywood at the time. The films proved not only to be immensely popular and accessible on a domestic level, but brought French cinema to a wider international public outside of the arthouse circles. Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s The Horseman On The Roof in 1995 was last great big-budget period drama epic of that era and it benefits from the very best talent French cinema had to offer at that period, Rappeneau relying on many of the same personnel he used on the sumptuous period drama of Cyrano de Bergerac - scripted by Jean-Claude Carrière, production design by Ezio Frigerio and Jean-Claude Petit turning in another score, this time with the addition of the stylish action cinematography of Thierry Abrogast (Nikita, Léon, The Fifth Element). The result is every bit the glorious romantic swashbuckling period adventure you would expect.
Set at the beginning of the 19th century, the north of Italy is under the rule of the Austrian Empire. Many patriots continue the struggle for freedom from across the border in France, but the Austrian secret police have an informer in their pay and are scouring the villages of Provence to round up rebels and carry-out summary executions. Fleeing Aix with the secret police on his heels, a young colonel in the Hussars, Angelo (Olivier Martinez) rides out on horseback across the French countryside in the direction of Manosque to warn other Italian exiles of the dangers that they face. But the dangers are greater than he expects as people are falling in alarming numbers in villages and by the roadside - victims apparently of the fierce heatwave, but in reality, the country is in the grip of a terrible cholera epidemic. The villagers, unaware of the nature of the horrible deaths affecting the population are consequently paranoid, alarmed and fearful of strangers and foreign visitors. Escaping from forced quarantines and angry lunch-mobs, Angelo stumbles into the house of Pauline de Théus (Juliette Binoche), who is living at her aunt’s house, but intending to leave along with the rest of the villagers being evacuated from the disease-stricken villages by the troops however have been mobilised to deal with the situation and prevent the contagion spreading across the region. In order to beat the barricades, Angelo and Pauline team up together and travel together at least part of the way until their paths take them each on their own individual missions – but the region has suddenly become a much more dangerous place for anyone travelling alone.
Like Rappeneau’s previous film Cyrano de Bergerac, The Horseman On The Roof benefits from a strong script with a sound historical foundation, giving the film, through its twin dangers of the political spy intrigue and the deadly epidemic sweeping the region, plenty of thrilling action situations. While Carrière provides opportunities aplenty for action and romance in his free adaptation of Jean Giono’s novel, Rappeneau directs with a real sense of panache (it is the only word that could describe such romantic flourishes), making the most of the resources at his disposal, the elegant period costumes and set designs and the striking landscapes of the Provence and Rhône-Alpes regions. Bathed in the golden glows of the summer heatwave, the oppressive atmosphere is heightened by the twin harbingers of death that sweep across the countryside in form of the Austrian secret police, dressed in black, in a black carriage pulled by black horses, and in the form of the black crows, who are not only the scavengers who feed on the devastation caused by the cholera epidemic, they are also the carriers of the disease itself. Together all these elements present a compelling backdrop for the constant flow of exciting situations that the protagonists have to face together and allow the inevitable romantic bond to develop between them.
If there is any weak point in the film it’s Olivier Martinez, who is no Gérard Depardieu in the acting or personality stakes (as is demonstrated by a very brief scene-stealing cameo in the film by Depardieu himself as well as the wonderful sequence with Jean Yanne’s itinerant potion salesman). With eyes that are simply dead of any expression, Martinez blankly fails to summon up the vast range of emotions required by the conflicting demands of his duty to his country and those of his heart. Evidently however, his looks are more than enough to render this unimportant and with the radiantly beautiful Juliette Binoche taking up the slack in the acting department with a magnificent performance and a sweeping adventure filled with thrills, danger and romance, there is no way the viewer is going to be let down.
Realising that the greater the forces keeping them apart, the greater the romance – particularly when those forces conflict with a sense of honour, chivalry and duty towards a greater cause – Rappeneau eternally draws out the will they/won’t they question, just as he did with Cyrano de Bergerac. The Horseman On The Roof carries this sense of suspense right through to the end, tantalisingly leaving the viewer with an ending that is just as noble and romantic in the self-sacrificing nature of its characters, who realise that there are more important causes to be fought for than their own personal happiness.
The Horseman On The Roof is released in the UK by Second Sight. The DVD presents the full film uncut, unlike the Miramax Region 1 DVD edition of the film. There are more details on this in the comparison below. The UK edition is in PAL format and is not region encoded.
The Horseman On The Roof is presented anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Again, rather like the Second Sight edition of Cyrano de Bergerac, the picture quality here looks very good on a cursory examination, but looks rather less impressive when examined close-up. Outdoor scenes are over bright and show a yellowish tint. Darker interiors are quite murky and show little shadow detail. Macro-blocking artefacts are more evident in these scenes, as is grain and cross-colouration. Movement also shows up the flaws in the transfer, with edges breaking up and showing discolouration. It’s not pretty, but for most of these flaws to be visible or troublesome, you’ll need a large display or examine the film frame-by-frame. If you are going to project the image or enlarge it in any way then, you can drop the score here by another point. In normal playback mode, there is little problem and the image is more or less passable – a little bit soft, but showing a decent level of balance and detail, with only a few stray marks and white dustspots.
The original audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround and it is fine, showing good stereo separation, with clarity of detail and good presence of ambience, but it is rather weaker in action scenes and never packs the required punch. The original soundmix on the film is indicated as being DTS Surround, so I think this could certainly be improved.
English subtitles are presented inside the 2.35:1 frame in a white font and they are clear and readable throughout. They seem to be mandatory, but are not burnt into the print or fixed on the transfer and may be removable on some players – they are not visible when the DVD is run through in fast-forward mode – but I wasn’t able to remove them either through my normal DVD player or on the PC.
Interview with Jean-Paul Rappeneau (28:23)
A film adaptation of Jean Giono’s 1951 classic had been considered many times, by directors including René Clément, Luis Buñuel and Louis Malle. Rappeneau explains how after making Cyrano de Bergerac, he felt up to the challenge of adapting another work of literature, where others had failed. This interview gives a lot of information on how it was adapted, cast and shot. Rather like the special historically correct wheat grown for Cyrano de Bergerac, here they even bred special crows a year before shooting the film. This is the only extra feature on the disc, but it is a good and very informative one.
Comparison with Miramax Region 1
The Miramax edition has a number of serious flaws. The 2.35:1 image is not presented anamorphically and looks miniscule in letterbox format. Subtitles are yellow, but are entirely outside the 2.35:1 frame. Most seriously however the film has undergone the usual Miramax editing process and has literally been cut to ribbons, with about 17 minutes missing. The Miramax edition runs to 118 minutes, the Second Sight edition is 130 minutes, with PAL speed-up, presenting the film in its full, uncut 135 minute European version. The reason for the edits are, I presume since they mostly occur in the early part of the film, to hasten up the action and bring the hero more quickly into contact with the heroine, who doesn’t appear until about 45 minutes into the film. The changes however are not insignificant. The initial cuts in the Region 1 edition are as follows:
1. Added text, in English, over a map of the region, explaining the political situation of the period.
2. Scene where Angelo arrives on the farm, explaining Maggionari’s history with the innkeeper, and showing the first case of the cholera.
3. Angelo’s arrival at the inn cuts the scene where the owner’s father is seen lying ill as Angelo prepares hot wine for him.
4. Arriving at a small village on the way to Manosque and finding it devastated by the epidemic, the encounter with the dog is cut, the eyeball scene is incomplete, and the impact of the disease on the village is somewhat reduced.
5. The whole 10-minute episode with Isabelle Carré as the governess with two children, their quarantine incarceration and escape from the troops is completely excised, as is the powerful epilogue to their encounter later in the film. Although still credited, Carré is in fact cut completely out of the Miramax edit of the film.
There may be other minor cuts later, but I stopped comparing at this stage. The Miramax edition is a travesty of the film, lessening the viewer’s awareness of the epidemic, the backgrounds of the Italian exiles and Angelo’s character development, and removing one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Miramax really shouldn’t be allowed near foreign language films.
What the Miramax edition does allow is a comparison closer probably to how the film’s colour scheme ought to look. Three screenshot examples are included below for comparison – Second Sight above, Miramax below:
An entertaining story of spies, political intrigue, period drama, action, adventure and romance with engaging characters, a sparkling script and sumptuous production values, The Horseman On The Roof is good old-style traditional filmmaking at its best, delivering on every level. Second Sight thankfully have presented the film on DVD in the UK in its complete uncut version – though it has always been presented uncut in the UK – and given it anamorphic enhancement. The picture quality however is not exceptional. It would pass a cursory undiscriminating examination, but reveals substantial flaws when examined closely. For a film like this, a merely adequate transfer is somewhat disappointing.