Thierry (Gérard Sandoz) was a pupil in a French school who in spite of doing well at sport was less than engaged with his academic studies, though one of his teachers, Mr Bracquard (Philippe Clévenot) notes the boy's intelligence and wishes to give him a chance the other teachers do not, which makes Thierry's prank on the man all the more dismaying to him as it knocked him off his bike and injured his leg. But the teenager has found something which captivates him more than school, and that is the circus which has arrived in town where lion tamers put on shows for the public with their trained big cats. Could Thierry inviegle his way into what seems like an exclusive world?
That's right, Roselyne and the Lions was the story of a boy who ran away to join the circus and as far as that went was a satisfactory fairy tale for its age, though director Jean-Jacques Beineix's movie, the last of a decade which had made his name internationally, found some difficulty in reaching a significant audience. A lot of that could have been down to the public's lapsing interest in the big top and all that went on under it, or more specifically the appeal of watching trained animals being put through their paces which seemed to belong to a past where the rights of these creatures was not so carefully attended to. No matter how impressive the setpieces, what if they were cruel?
Given there was a major slice of the running time allowed to spend time with the lions and tigers being ordered about and whipped and poked with sticks, you could well understand the reservations potential viewers would have in spite of the novelty of it being the actual actors who were performing on screen with the beasts rather than the professional tamers. Or rather, it was one actress in particular who was impressing with her bravery and skill, and that was Isabelle Pasco who becomes Thierry's girlfriend as the titular Roselyne. She had the curious quality of being able to look plain or beautiful depending on what camera angle or lighting was used on her features, but there was no denying she was a striking figure in the scenes where such things counted.
Roselyne works as a trainee tamer but is indignant that her boss has never allowed her the opportunities she feels she needs to get ahead in her chosen profession, which puts an intriguing female emancipation point of view on the proceedings, as she must prove she is the equal of any man in the traditionally male-dominated field of lion taming. According to Beineix his movie was more about the course of creation in that both she and Thierry are moulded by their experiences to become the fully realised examples of their art we see at the finale, but that could be an indication of where this fell down as a narrative: it was simply too straightforward for a film which lasted over two hours, and was three hours in its director's cut. With few surprises, you were relying on spectacle after a fashion.
So when that spectacle raised qualms about the ethics of what you were watching, it's clear this was a work which really should have been made at a different era, a film out of time if you like. We follow Thierry and Roselyne from their inception as tamers to being rejected (cast out of Eden?) by their strict tutor, then on the road where they end up looking after camels in a travelling circus for want of actually putting their talents to the use they wished. There we have some too-traditional carnival folk drama with a humorous dwarf and his rival the strongman who takes care of the lions himself but wishes to sell them at a profit since they are not the most obedient, so no prizes for guessing what our hero and heroine have to cope with when they get their big chance. That takes up the last hour as they train and rehearse tirelessly, overcoming obstacles such as Günter Meisner's tiger tamer who loses his nerve, until we reached what was evidently intended to be a dazzling example of the lion tamer's art but was actually as naff as the climax to Staying Alive. Oh well. Music by Reinhardt Wagner.