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.