Olivier, Olivier

Olivier Martinez is an ornament in a lushly decorated Horseman on the Roof

The camera loves 30-year-old French actor Olivier Martinez, but it doesn't do him justice. In Jean-Paul Rappeneau's deliriously romantic spectacle, The Horseman on the Roof, he wields heavy-lidded eyes that can make an offhand glance look like an invitation to hit the sack, yet there's not an ounce of self-consciousness about him.

Sitting across a coffee table at a suite in the Melrose, Martinez appears shorter and more delicate than he does on screen. But his Mediterranean bloodline betrays itself under natural light. In person, he is darker and perpetually gentle of expression--a Teen Beat dream guy.

And if Martinez isn't careful, his career could slide into professional pinuphood. When told that he has been dubbed "the next Tom Cruise" by YM magazine, it's clear the comparison has been made before but never quite clarified for him.

Martinez has been speaking English for only a few months. He learned, in part, for Miramax's 60-city Horseman publicity tour.

"Where does this Tom Cruise business come from?" he asks. When I suggest it's because of a slight physical resemblance, he shrugs. "I don't think I look like Tom Cruise," he says. "I think I look like my father."

We can shoot higher than Tom Cruise anyway, Olivier. By amusing coincidence, the new Cruise action thriller Mission Impossible opens in Dallas the same weekend as The Horseman on the Roof. Both feature vertically challenged heroes with killer cheekbones who are tossed black-and-blue by international forces.

Whereas Cruise reclines atop the comfortably familiar material of an American TV show inflated with a blockbuster budget, Martinez steps into the shoes of a French literary icon. The character of Angelo, an Italian freedom fighter stranded in a French province during the cholera epidemic of the 1830s, is the mucho macho centerpiece of Jean Giono's panoramic 1953 novel The Horseman on the Roof. Angelo rescues, then loses, then rescues, then loses the beautiful, impertinent French noblewoman Pauline, all the while working the underground to free his native Italy from Austrian tyranny.

Jean-Paul Rappeneau, a giant of French cinema whose bombastic, genial epics are best compared to the blustery works of Sir Richard Attenborough, can do larger-than-life with aplomb:Think about how he wrung every last thunderous ounce from Gerard Depardieu's death scene in 1990's Cyrano, still the most expensive French film ever made. Could Olivier Martinez, a stage-trained actor with a tiny film resume, bring appropriate grace and conviction to the light loafers of Angelo, who is required to singlehandedly fend off panicked mobs with a sword and hop from horse to horse in a last-minute escape?

Granted, Martinez wasn't exactly plucked from obscurity. He won the Cesar (the French Oscar) in 1994 for Most Promising Actor, but his handful of roles up to that point were edgy, quirky, contemporary--"kindhearted criminals," he calls them.

Angelo, on the other hand, must manage to be abstract and compelling, mysterious and approachable, in the manner of all successful romantic-movie avengers. And Olivier Martinez acquits himself marvelously--mostly because he lets his athleticism propel his character, and doesn't offer too much emotion.

With a staunch visualist at the controls, this was a noble sacrifice. Jean-Paul Rappeneau punctuates the furious gallop of The Horseman on the Roof with sharp visual motifs torn straight from the novel. Black crows haunt this film like they haunted Giono's pages; French peasants, terrified by the deadly outbreak of cholera, roam the stone-paved streets of their province in search of infidels who might be poisoning the water. Two lucky strangers cling together amid the decay and the horror.

Rappeneau teamed Martinez with Juliette Binoche, the contemporary Gallic actress whose fascinating, cynical stare rivals the angry undercurrent in Catherine Deneuve's performances for sheer tastiness. Appropriately for the material, Pauline seems wiser than Angelo by light years, though they are only a few years apart. Their relationship has a sweet, big sister-little brother chemistry. When they finally press flesh at the close of the film, the reason is unsexy but thrillingly grotesque. Sometimes positively gaga off the fumes of its own swashbuckling mood, The Horseman on the Roof charts the crisscrossing orbits of these two impetuous satellites as their fates converge again and again.

As for the movie's lack of sex, Martinez is proud of the film's relative modesty and protests that there is too little "love of the mind" portrayed in popular cinema today. "I am not an expert at love scenes," Martinez says. "I don't like them at all. There is so much more to love than sex--generosity, admiration, the sacrifices you make for another person. But it's easier to film two bodies together."

Martinez's discomfort with English prevents him from adequately describing his feelings about certain subjects, and the frustration shows. He waves his arms a lot and scoots backward and forward on the couch as he talks about his working-class French childhood (his father was a boxer) spent watching American movies. Steve McQueen and James Stewart are his favorite actors "for the hour." They represent opposite approaches to their craft that Olivier Martinez would love to rhapsodize about...if only he was as graceful with his new language as he was with a saber in The Horseman on the Roof. The awkward sincerity of Angelo creeps back into Martinez as he struggles to find the words. Suddenly, as he explains how his love affair with movies began as a casual fling, he looks like a stringy-haired kid hanging out on a Paris street corner.

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