Somewhere on the movie genre spectrum, there's a line that separates the grand epic from the particularly long road movie. The version integrale of Roselyne and the Lions falls on the road movie side of that line. It is the story of a young couple who set out to become lion tamers in the circus, but delivers a frustratingly tame experience everywhere but the lion cage.
A new Cinema Libre DVD presents the film in a nearly three-hour-long director's cut that restores Jean-Jacques Beineix's original intent. Beineix, best known for Diva (1981) and Betty Blue (1986), shows off his gift for visually immersive scenes and grand gestures. Where he falters is in crafting his characters, who lack the spark of the young dreamers they're supposed to be. I haven't seen the theatrical cut of the film, so I can't compare the two versions, but the problem lies less in the amount of time we see the characters and more in how they're written and portrayed.
The undisciplined, troubled high school student Thierry (Gérard Sandoz) ditches out on detention one day to go to the zoo, where he falls in love with the world of lion taming and with the old tamer's apprentice, Roselyne (Isabelle Pasco). He starts doing janitorial work for Frazier (Gabriel Monnet) in exchange for lessons, but with no future ahead of him in school, he decides that he's ready to chase his destiny and head out for greater things.
It's established that Thierry has a gift for working with the animals, but the length of his training, along with the passing of time throughout the film, is unclear. Has Thierry spent a few days, weeks or months training with a big bad lion before he and Roselyne run away to pursue circus careers? I could venture a guess, but it would be no better than that of someone who hasn't seen the film. Regardless of their preparation level, the kids-turned-adults set out on the road in the hopes of becoming great lion tamers.
The film captures an air of nostalgic yearning, despite being set in contemporary times upon its 1989 release. There's a certain mesmerizing quality to the scenes in the lion cage, and not only due to Beineix's fixation on his heroine's breasts, thighs and ass, which peaks during the film's climax. The lion cage is a naturally gripping setting. When someone tells a mighty maned predator what to do, they're guaranteed a certain risk and a thrilling rush. Tension naturally surrounds every command. Will the lion obey as usual, or will it decide that it would rather have a snack?
The film goes awry when it starts trying to grow some conflict between its characters as they grow nearer to their dream. It's not that conflict wasn't needed to fill out the three hours, but that it feels so utterly contrived. Our characters avoid having any sort of meaningful conversation about their feelings so that they can act like petulant jerks without good reason.
If the screenplay sucks its leads into half-baked whims, some of the supporting characters stay there for the whole film. If the movie needs an unlikeable character, an jerky body builder who talks about how big his muscles are while he's lifting weights shows up. A circus tycoon might operate under a sinister plan, but don't expect that plan to have any real motive or point. On the bright side, Philippe Clévenot pulls some nice moments out of a teacher who goes from too cruel to too fawning after discovering Thierry's passion, and Gunter Meisner finds the most interesting notes as a literally scarred tamer who no longer has the mental constitution to work with lions.
But the positives are never quite enough to pull the film through. Roselyne and the Lions charms you into wanting to like it, but doesn't give you enough to like.
The review copy of Roselyne and the Lions, which is part of Cinema Libre's Beineix series, was spread across two single-layer DVD-Rs, one with the feature and the other with the main extra. The final edition is on one dual-layer disc, which I haven't seen. So I can't really comment on the 4x3 letterboxed picture with burnt-in subs included on the disc I received, as it was obviously created by recording the feature to a DVD recorder. I can say that the source appeared reasonably clean, and hopefully the DVD itself does a better job of presenting it.
See above. There were a couple glitches in the stereo French track found on the review copy, but hopefully they don't cross over to the release. Overall the sound is well-balanced, with a full-bodied, undeniably '80s score.
The main extra is actually feature-length on its own. Bruno Delbonnel's 78-minute behind-the-scenes documentary The Grand Circus (4x3, burnt-in subtitles) spans the entire shooting of Roselyne and the Lions. In the mold of Direct Cinema, the documentary features no voice-over or interviews, not even a title card explaining the premise of the movie or the people in it. It jumps straight into the on-set footage, which reveals that working with Beineix is a bit like working with an asshole.
You hear about directors who treat their actors like equals and ones who boss them around like dictators, and there's no question which category Beineix falls into. He refers to his actors' performances with phrases like "Shitville" and "Toiletteville." Early in the documentary, when one actor doesn't shove another correctly, he declares, "Actors are worse than maneaters!" But the best moment is a rambling on-set announcement that everyone is great except Gérard Sandoz, who is complete shit.
Whether or not you think Beineix's methods work, watching it gets old after a while. I must admit that when I glanced at the counter and saw that I was 40 minutes in, I wasn't terribly enthusiastic that I still had half the movie ahead of me. I've certainly found more insight into the filmmaking process in shorter periods of time.
The other special feature, a Jean-Jaques Beineix Interview with Moviemaker Magazine, was not included with the review copy of the DVD. Ideally, it would complement his film and the footage of his filmmaking process by laying out his philosophy. Here's hoping.
Roselyne and the Lions is almost worth watching for its best moments, but the annoyances and contrivances build up and are never overcome. Without access to the shorter cut of the film, I can't say if this is an improvement. Add in the uncertainty surrounding the video quality, and even the most interested parties may want to start with a rental.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.