Eight years after he burst onto the moviemaking scene with Diva, French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix gave his audience another obsessive youth, this time far removed from the rarefied world classical opera. In Roselyne and the Lions, we’re introduced to Therry (Gerard Sandoz), a Marseilles high-schooler who gets swept up in the world of circus lion taming. As the movie opens, the young man is a bored mischievous student who happens on a geezerly animal tamer/instructor while ditching school. It’s a toss-up as to which draws him first — the cats or the tutor’s angelic looking student Roselyne (Isabelle Pascoe) — but, either way, he's hooked.
The movie minutely charts Thierry and Roselyne’s growth from students to performers at a high-class German circus. It’s a long (nearly three hours) trek, yet somehow Beineix keeps things interesting. What we’re basically seeing here is the growth of two artists: we shown the two as they first learn to work with bullwhips and big cats at a modest local zoo, then as they negotiate the nearly-as-treacherous world of their fellow performers. At times, the director almost seems to be following the path of an old-fashioned show biz partnership flick — wherein the more talented member of a struggling duo is shown out-stripping the other — but this ultimately doesn’t prove to be the case.
When Diva first hit American shores in the early eighties, the movie’s canny promoters trumpeted it as a new kind of French “new wave.” If that magnificent break-out was Beineix’s pop paean to Jean-Luc Godard, then Roselyne is his homage to François Truffaut: a humanistic coming of age movie set in a much less plastic world than Diva’s pulpish Paris. While the first flick gave us elegant opera singer Cynthia Hawkins as its musical center, the visually earthier Roselyne provides us with a plus-sized alcoholic gospel singer; instead of the punk-inspired gunsels of the former film, there’s a caustic circus dwarf named Li’l Prince and a self-absorbed strongman. The movie even includes a Truffaut-like idealized speech from Thierry’s teacher about the true mission of education.
Pascoe and Sandoz are appealing leads, though neither one is as colorful as the case of carnival-esque eccentrics surrounding ‘em. Beineix is not afraid to make each of his attractive protagonists unlikable at times, however. During the film’s final third, Thierry becomes particularly bullying as the duo work up their set: a hectoring director in his own right. In a bonus disc documentary provided with Cinema Libre’s DVD edition, “Le Grande Cirque,” Beineix gives a glimpse of his own personality as a creator and moviemaker. When one of his actors asks the director why he’s making things more difficult for them, he replies quite simply, “Complications are my business.”
A decent tagline for this great French moviemaker’s oeuvre, come to think of it.