Appellate Judge James A. Stewart thinks lion taming looks like a nice, safe job.
"Are you in love?"
Roselyne et les lions didn't get much attention when it was released in 1989, according to IMDb. Director Jean-Jacques Beineix's biography notes two dramatic successes, Diva and 37 o 2 le matin, and a shift to documentaries, with Locked-In Syndrome and Otaku, among others. While you might not have had the chance to see them when they were first released, Cinema Libre has begun a retrospective of his work in theaters and on DVD. Roselyne and the Lions is the second release in the collection.
Facts of the Case
When Thierry (Gérard Sandoz) is thrown out of class and heads for the zoo, he spots the beautiful Roselyne (Isabelle Pasco) learning the art of taming lions. Thierry's in love with Roselyne, but he's also smitten by lion taming, and he signs on as an apprentice. After he loses this job, Thierry and Roselyne hit the rode on his motorbike. When all seems lost, they take jobs with a traveling circus: she as a magician's assistant, getting beheaded every night, and he as a shit shoveler. When a German circus hires them, it's their big chance—or her big chance, anyway. The circus owner wants to make Roselyn a star, while Thierry toils behind the scenes.
Is the love of big cats that Roselyne and Thierry share a metaphor for their romance, or is their romance a metaphor for their love of big cats? While a conversation between Roselyne and a journalist suggests the former, the love of lions is visible and integral to the story. It may look like Thierry's mainly interested in Roselyne when he watches her tame cats for the first time, but a new focus about his character is quickly visible, suggesting that the cats have his attention as much as she does. Their goal of taming lions sustains them through a bad job with a small circus. When the pair argues, it's over her troubles with a flaming hoop act. Even as she puts on the smiling face of a star, Roselyne grows more confident and stronger in dealing with the lions. The lions are constantly shown with a hungry look, and veteran trainer Klint (Günter Meisner, The Winds of War) is haunted by a mauling accident, hearing the roar of the cats in his head as the circus owner discusses sending him in to help Roselyne prepare a new act. Thus, we're always reminded of the risks involved in their goal.
The lion tamers' passion is brought to life brilliantly by Jean-Jacques Beineix. With all the shots inside a lion cage, you'd expect bars to be a metaphor for personal prisons or limitations, but the image of the bars is most striking when Thierry is fired from the zoo, looking sadly through the bars that keep him out of the lion cage. Klint's story is brought out gradually; we see the effects of the mauling before we learn what happened. The swaggering Markovitch (Jacques Le Carpentier, Arlette), who feigns confidence and simply sells killer lions to another circus, also provides a contrast for the youngsters whose enthusiasm can't be dampened. As the class clown becomes a lion tamer, one of his greatest foes—Bracquard (Philippe Clévenot, La com e te), a teacher who was knocked off his bike by Thierry's prank—becomes his greatest supporter, helping out when they're broke, following their careers, and even training his cat. The leads, who do much of their own work with the lions, bring an intensity to their roles that demonstrates their passion for the cats.
Given that much of the story takes place in lion and tiger cages, Beineix gives Roselyne a sense of grandeur, sweeping in on the lion cage when we first see it at the German circus training center to show the enormity of the place. A scene in which Roselyne goes to church to pray for guidance almost feels like choirs of angels will turn up, making the miracle of an idea seem heaven-sent. All this comes across well, for the most part, with a few scenes showing grain. The sound mixes music with ambient noise, real and remembered, and, in one scene, a singer providing musical backup to a cat-taming demonstration.
Le Grand Cirque, or The Big Circus, is a 78-minute making-of feature that mostly just follows the actors and crew in cinema vérité style. It shows the stunts and the filming of the beasts, along with some joking on the set. It's interesting to watch the actors interacting with the lions and tigers without the extra editing and polish.
A couple of the scenes with lions can be scary, as can one surprise twist late in the movie, and there's one brief glimpse of breast. These scenes take Roselyne out of the family fare category.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the fly-on-the-wall approach of the making-of documentary has its merits, there's one big gap. The leads, Isabelle Pasco and Gérard Sandoz, are seen working extensively with the lions and tigers, but you don't get to hear how they felt about it. Were they scared? Did they get used to the big cats? With the danger of getting mauled present throughout the moviemaking experience, this would be the first question I'd want answered in the documentary.
Roselyne feels a bit like A Star is Born at times. Perhaps it's no coincidence thematically that Isabelle Pasco sports a "Catch a Rising Star" T-shirt, from the once-famous comedy club, for much of the movie.
The 170-minute run time for this director's cut may seem daunting when you first notice it on the DVD box, but you'll soon be involved in its circus milieu.
Not guilty. We won't throw Jean-Jacques Beineix to the lions over this
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Studio: Cinema Libre
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