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Note: This summer will see the rerelease of Betty Blue (the three-hour director’s cut, no less) from director Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva). This winter will see a DVD release of The Jean-Jacques Beineix collection featuring six of his lesser-known films. Return to Movie Habit each week this summer as Marty Mapes reviews another film in the series>.

After making several films with inscrutable, psychologically damaged characters, Jean-Jacques Beineix directed a surprisingly straightforward film in Roselyne and the Lions.

How to Get Ahead in Lion Taming

Not much chemistry because they're focused on their work
Not much chemistry because they’re focused on their work

Roselyne is the title character, but the movie opens on Serrurier (also called Thierry, played by Gérard Sandoz) clowning in class and doing poorly in his studies. Before long he’s volunteering at a chintzy zoo in Marseilles where a pretty young lion-tamer-in-training catches his eye. He signs up as the only other student in lion-tamer school, and they grow together. Their teacher, Frazier (Gabriel Monnet), is a gruff and stout man, and he gives them the stern and sturdy advice they’ll need later on.

They outgrow the Marseilles zoo and find work at a circus where they are assigned to handle the camels. The circus is demeaning and shallow, and they have to put up with the abuse from the vain and macho lion tamer Markovitch (Jacques Le Carpentier) whose techniques are the opposite of what Frazier taught. At least they have their friend the clown, and they get supporting letters from Serrurier’s schoolteacher who witnessed the remarkable change in his life.

But the circus becomes too small to bear. And when they learn that Markovitch is selling some lions unstable from years of his abuse, they take the opportunity to apply for an even bigger circus in Berlin with a much better reputation. In the third act, in Berlin, Serrurier and Roselyne are finally adults (though not much older), working at the top of their game, and preparing for their big debut. They work harder than ever before. Their colleagues are now professionals. Klint (Günter Meisner), who looks as though he might have once been an East German intelligence officer, runs the tiger show. He’s part mentor, part jealous colleague, and he’s the first worldly professional they’ve met.

The finale is a grand piece of circus art, at once classy and kitschy. It’s what the protagonists were striving for the whole three-hour movie. There are a few surprises at the finale, but only in the style, not in the dramatic arc.

The Shape of a Career

After Beineix’s more cryptic films, one might reasonably ask if there is something going on beneath the surface of Roselyne and the Lions. I think not. I think it’s a straightforward story about the shape of an artistic career. You start with a spark of inspiration, and you are happy to push a broom for the practitioners of your art. You learn what you can just by being around the right people. You soak it in until you can’t learn anymore, and then you travel to the next biggest town and get the next-least-demeaning job in the field. And when you’ve learned all you can you move up and move on, eventually working for yourself, resolved to make art and not settle for less. You discover how hard you have to work and how passionately frustrated you can get, but you push yourself and accept nothing less than success. If you’re lucky, you get some fleeting applause, but your real reward is knowing yourself that your work is good.

At one point in Berlin, a local reporter interviews Roselyne about their new act. To him, the appeal of lion taming is obvious: it’s a half-dressed woman with a whip and a crop, in a cage, dominating. But Beineix seems to disagree. There’s almost no romance between Serrurier and Roselyne, and the only overt kinkiness is perhaps in the grand finale, (and in the reporter’s head). Beineix plays it very straight. Maybe lion taming is a strange enough profession that you don’t need to build a gratuitously twisted story around it.

Three Hours

The worst thing about Roselyne and the Lions is its running time. Three hours is daunting unless you know you’ll be getting Lawrence of Arabia or2001. Also, the main characters are a little bland. They are so into their work that there’s no chemistry or romance between them. Early on there is a spark of mutual infatuation, but by the end, they are all business.

But Roselyne and the Lions is not half bad. For one thing, it is genuine; the workaday world of lion taming is not just a conceit of the plot. In fact, I wondered whether Beineix hired tamers who could act, or whether he hired actors willing to work with big cats. (It’s the latter, according to a making-of documentary.) For another, it builds. It’s reassuring and satisfying to see a story where hard work, dedication, and the right mindset result in success — even if you were a screw-up in school.

I can’t imagine anyone to whom I would say “you have to see this movie.” But there is nothing here to avoid here, either, and you might even feel like you’ve learned a little something about lion taming. How many movies can make you say that?