The Horseman On The Roof


Reviewed by: Sarah Artt

The Horseman On The Roof begins with a summer fete in Provence in 1832. Fireworks are being let off as the bourgeoisie dine outside in the village square. Unbeknownst to the revellers, there are men in black afoot in the land - Austrian secret police!

Soon, we meet our young hero, Angelo (Olivier Martinez, before he became semi-famous in America with roles in Before Night Falls and Unfaithful), an exiled Italian who longs to return home and fight in the revolution. He realises his sojourn in France is over when he escapes the Austrians, fleeing towards the town of Manosque, where another of his compatriots is also living in exile.

However, he soon has another travelling companion: a cholera epidemic is sweeping the south of France and Angelo seems to find it wherever he goes. Greying corpses and the smell of death form a powerful undercurrent to the idyllic ochre, sienna and terra cotta of Provence in July. Cholera soon overtakes Angelo's pursuers, but by this point he has other problems.

The inhabitants of one village don't realise there is an epidemic and are convinced that someone is infecting their water deliberately. Angelo, in the wrong place at the wrong time, is nearly hung as a poisoner. To escape the mob, he climbs onto the roof of a nearby building, where he is forced to spend the night (hence the story's title), with a rather charming tabby for company.

When it begins to rain, with the aid of the cat, he finds an open attic window and soon stumbles upon Pauline (Juliette Binoche), a curiously fearless noblewoman, who has been abandoned by her relatives in the midst of the epidemic. Clad immaculately in white, in stark contrast to Angelo's dusty and dishevelled appearance, she offers him bread and tea.

Bound by notions of chivalry that haven't been seen since the 1400s, and in return for Pauline's kindness, Angelo pledges that he will deliver her safely to her destination, as she can hardly remain in Manosque any longer. So begins an incredibly scenic journey on horseback over what the director freely admits is a "mythic Provence," composed of the most beautiful parts of the country, some of which are, in reality, many hundreds of kilometres apart.

At every town, the cholera seems to have become worse. Angelo tries and fails to save several victims, a process that involves rubbing the flesh with alcohol to stave off the convulsions and chills that characterise the disease. Pauline and Angelo escape quarantine several times, determined to find her husband and reach Theus, their estate on the Italian border.

As the journey progresses, Pauline and Angelo begin to form a relationship and their intimacy is sealed (but not in the way one might expect).

One of the most interesting aspects of the film (and presumably the novel) is the way animals intervene as characters. The cat that accompanies Angelo on the roof and into Pauline's house has a certain personality that is hard to describe, but comes across very well visually. The other presence that resonates most strongly is a murder of crows that punctuates the journey. They are harbingers of death, seemingly intricately bound up with the spread of cholera. Their malevolence is most clear in a scene where one attacks the sleeping Pauline, who ends up firing a pistol at it.

Some may recognise the director as the force behind the recent hit Bon Voyage (2003), with Isabelle Adjani. Prior to this, he was best known to English-speaking audiences for his adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), with Gerard Depardieu. The Horseman On The Roof is the film Rappenau made between these two well-regarded international successes.

Its obscurity is perhaps due to the original novel being virtually unknown outside France, as well as the courtly nature of the story's romance, which may have been a disappointment to those more accustomed to the racier offerings of French cinema. Nonetheless, it is a beautifully shot, delicately told romance that is well worth its re-release on DVD.

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2006
Share this with others on...
The Horseman On The Roof packshot
A romantic flight from cholera on horseback through Provence in 1832.
Amazon link

Director: Jean-Paul Rappeneau

Writer: Jean Claude Carriere, Nina Companeez, based on the novel by Jean Giano

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Olivier Martinez, Pierre Arditi, Francois Cluzet, Jean Yanne, Claudio Amendola, Isabelle Carre, Gerard Depardieu

Year: 1995

Runtime: 135 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France


Search database:

If you like this, try:

Cyrano de Bergerac