Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Horseman on the Roof
Dir: Jean-Paul Rappeneau
The Horseman on the Roof has opened in France twice as successfully as Rappeneau's last film, Cyrano de Bergerac. The Horseman took one year to cast and was shot in and around 50 Provencal towns with over 1,000 costumes and 5,000 square metres of tiles used to recreate the roofs of Manosque. It is the most expensive French film ever made.
Based on the 1951 novel by Jean Giono, it has been described as a film worth seeing just for the scenery and is beautifully shot in southern France.
Set in 1832 in Provence, a young Italian Hussar turned revolutionary, Angelo, is fleeing from Austrian assassins. The film opens with the assassins executing one of Angelo's friends, another exile from Piedmont, and Angelo sets off to warn his other comrades. But Provence is cholera ridden and as Angelo moves through the area he encounters entire villages devastated by the plague.
The opening of the film is one of the most moving scenes. Bodies are piled everywhere and peasants try to flee, terrified as one by one they are hit with the disease. Through this Angelo is hounded by the black carriage of the assassins.
Rappeneau based these scenes on his memories of 1940s France and the exodus from the Nazis. The roads of Provence are full of refugees with all their possessions. As the plague spreads, the army moves in and people fleeing to other villages are stopped and flung into quarantine where they face certain death from others infected.
Angelo escapes from quarantine and reaches the town of Manosque, where newcomers are lynched by a hysterical mob with accusations of poisoning the well. In the midst of this is a marvellous cameo by Gerard Depardieu as a local magistrate who has to try Angelo, telling him, 'You are the third this week.'
Angelo has been unafraid of the disease, tending the sick and continuing to warn his exiled friends of the assassins. However, in Manosque he meets Pauline, a refined aristocrat who appears in a deserted house where he has taken refuge. There, dressed in a ball gown, she makes tea whilst the mob rages outside.
From this moment the film begins to lose momentum. Angelo has always talked of the revolution. The exiles have given him money to take to Italy to continue the fight against the Austrians. All is now abandoned as Angelo falls in love with Pauline and follows her across France.
Sadly, what follows is an overlong romance which lacks the passion and interest of Cyrano de Bergerac. All the previous action around the assassins, exiles and revolutionaries is now peripheral to a love story.
In spite of the amazing scenery and beauty of both leading actors, Olivier Martinez and Juliette Binoche, they fail to give any passion to the relationship. What follows is the familiar format of a brave young man infatuated with a woman on a long and dangerous road journey. The Horseman begins well but ends a rather sad disappointment.
Louis Malle, who died on 24 November, once told an interviewer, 'The best films come out of a real lightness of spirit. They're made with a small crew. So you have the possibility to change your mind.'
Throughout a career that spanned over 40 years, Malle produced as well as directed most of his work. This allowed him to tackle subjects and ideas from which Hollywood moguls would run a mile.
His mother was heir to a fortune in the sugar industry. He was brought up as a member of the bourgeoisie, sent to a Catholic boarding school, then on to the Sorbonne to study political science.
To the dismay of his mother he dropped out and transferred to the French national film school, IDHEC. His technical talents were spotted by underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, who employed him first as a camera man, and later as co-director of The Silent World, a ground breaking documentary that won the Palme d'Or at the 1955 Cannes film festival.
During his early years in the industry he worked with Robert Bresson, and Jacques Tati, the great tragic film maker and master of French comedy.
Malle's first feature film, Lift to the Scaffold, was made in 1958. This stylish thriller had a new sharp edged look. Audiences were used to stars shot in full make up through gauze filters. Lab technicians protested at having to process shots of Jeanne Moreau taken in natural light.
Malle's second film, made in the same year, told the story of a wealthy woman who fills her life with trips to Paris and flirtation with a society lounge lizard. She throws it all up for a bookish young man who drives a 2CV. The Lovers caused a sensation as much for its swipe at bourgeois sexuality and hypocrisy as for the explicit sex scenes.
Malle said of his early career, 'When I started, I showed off a lot. That's what you do to show you're good.' The Lovers was followed by an eclectic choice of subjects. Zazie was a manic comedy; Viva Maria, a silly Thelma and Louise buddy movie in which Bardot and Moreau start a revolution in Mexico. In total contrast The Fire Within is a story of an alcoholic's slide to suicide, told with restraint and quiet realism. It was the first of his films to show the sympathetic honesty about individuals and class that permeates his three great films, Lacombe Lucien, Atlantic City and Au Revoir Les Enfants.
Disaffected by what he saw as the cultural sterility of France under Giscard d'Estaing, Malle moved to the US. In 1981 he made his most successful English film, Atlantic City, coaxing one of the greatest performances in Burt Lancaster's career.
Malle's own career in English speaking film making was not without controversy. Unlikely and disturbing themes interested him. Pretty Baby dealt with child prostitution and Damage looked at the betrayal of a son by a father. Both attracted heavy criticism. Interviewed after the release of Damage in 1992, Malle said, 'My ambition is not strictly to entertain. I am always interested in an aspect of the truth which goes against preconceived ideas, including mine.'
In 1987 Malle made the autobiographical Au Revoir Les Enfants. Set in the Catholic boarding school of his youth, it is the true story of his relationship with a Jewish boy, Bloom, who is finally betrayed to the Gestapo.
The film was a deeply personal one for Malle. He said he often thought about the real Bloom, and always wished he had been able to say goodbye to him. Malle's technical skills and the performances of emotional honesty he got from his child actors make it both a human, moving farewell and a powerful tribute to those who did have the courage to resist the Nazis.
In 1968, inspired by the spirit of the times, Malle was instrumental in suspending the deliberations of the Cannes Film Festival. Milou in May, his last French film, sets a bourgeois family against the mood of 1968, and, with great humour and warmth, takes them apart.
This was followed by Damage, a box office flop. But his reputation revived with his last work, Vanya on 42nd Street, a film of the theatre production of Uncle Vanya.
Louis Malle took an independent line on what he filmed, and how he chose to do it, right to the end.