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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘HORSE’: A BEAUTIFUL RIDE THROUGH OLD BRITTANY

One of the highest pleasures movies can give is to plunge us into the customs of a foreign country with a visual fullness and depth that we could never experience firsthand or in a book. This is what Satyajit Ray does in “The Apu Trilogy” and Ermanno Olmi in “The Tree of the Wooden Clogs.” Claude Chabrol achieves that richness in “The Horse of Pride” (at the Nuart), his beautiful film on Breton peasant life.

It seems a curious project for Chabrol, this adaptation of PierreJakez Helias’ autobiographical novel, set from 1908-1918 in the Bigouden region of Brittany. Helias, a retired professor and expert on the region’s culture, is the child of Breton peasants. He seems almost the opposite of the cynical, urbane, movie-mad Parisian Chabrol--who, in film after film, has ruthlessly vivisected the French bourgeoisie.

But Chabrol’s reputation as a “Hitchcockian” cynic is exaggerated. To expose hypocrisy implies a devotion, however devious, to justice or truth--and there’s always been a robust, humorous, life-embracing side to Chabrol’s films. In “The Horse of Pride,” he gives us something far different from the bent mores of his usual milieus. He steeps us in the peasants’ world, in their daily life and their strange, rich fantasies.

We see their clothes, their marriages, their food, the fields in which they work, their peculiar, cabinetlike beds. We hear the clop of their wooden shoes, hear fantastic tales of ghosts and visitations: of the Ankou, or Death in his chariot, and of the “world bitch"--the specter of misery that haunts the poor, waiting to devour them.

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The film’s focus is the little boy, Pierre (Helias’ memory of himself), whom we follow from the marriage of his parents (Bernadette Lesache and Francois Cluzet) through his 10th year. The “horse” refers to the shoulders of his grandfather Alain (sublimely played by Jacques Dufilho--ironically, one of the few non-Bretons in the cast), and later his father. This is the “horse of pride,” the only horse peasants like Pierre can have--and, as he later insists, the best ride in the world.

The film teems with character and event--and its lack of bitterness or stridence is less affirmation of the status quo than a celebration of lives often misrepresented or ignored. The movie seems superficially to continue lyrical film studies of the French peasantry, but it has a certain bite, an undertone of horror that they didn’t have. It’s also not quite as languorous or idyllic. It has some of the taut compulsive drive of Chabrol’s thrillers, and an enticing, “Arabian Nights"-like narrative profusion.

Above all, it’s a lovely film. Rabier is such a consummate cameraman, that you luxuriate in his images--and the actors play with purity, gravity and a beguiling lustiness: a sort of fine Rabelaisan beefiness and muscle. After watching “The Horse of Pride,” you feel that you know Brittany and the people who lived there as well as you know your neighbors or friends. What a rich gift that is: How many movies give you as much or more?

‘THE HORSE OF PRIDE’

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A Nicole Jouve Interama presentation of a Bela productions/TFI film. Producer Georges De Beauregard. Director Claude Chabrol. Script Daniel Boulanger, Chabrol. Camera Jean Rabier. Music Pierre Jansen. With Jacques Dufilho, Bernadette Les ache, Francois Cluzet, Ronan Hubert. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

Times-rated: Family.


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