Cannes Film festival, May 23, l993–All “poetic” atmosphere and no dramatic substance, Mazeppa is a pretentious, overlong meditation on the creative act of painting, irrational love for horses, and horses' superiority over human beings. Intensely pictorial, film provides interesting recreation of historical locale and some minor visual pleasures that may be sufficient for the most patient arthouse audiences, but it's doubtful that even viewers who love horses will attend this dull film.
The slim narrative is constructed as a series of painterly tableaux, most set within the Franconi Circus, where the mythic tale unfolds. Story concerns the complex, ambiguous relationship between Theodore Gericault (Miguel Bose), a young romantic painter fascinated with horses, and Franconi (Bartabas), the famous master trainer and circus director. In their first, combative encounter, the obsessed trainer charges the painter with drawing horses as if he had never seen real ones in action. Gericault takes matters to his heart and spends all his time at the circus observing, learning, and drawing.
Lord Byron's 1819 poem, “Mazeppa,” which inspired a small painting by Gericault, is reconstructed–providing the film with a literary cachet that it otherwise lacks. Byron's poem describes a Polish gentleman, who was tied naked to a wild horse and then set loose after being caught in an adulterous affair with a noblemen's wife.
Making his directorial debut Bartabas shows more than anything else unreasonable obsession–actually fetishism–with horses' graceful and elegant movement. Beautiful horses are shown–often in close-up–in all their glory, as they engage in every imaginable function: performing acrobatic acts, slow and fast moving, galloping, even fornicating.
The dialogue, co-written by Bartabas, is all mumbo jumbo on the order of, “Have you ever felt a horse quivering between your thighs” Or “When you love horses, you only love horses.” Though the painter and trainer appear to be different, the script offers hints, but doesn't develop the idea, that they actually share many attributes–and neuroses–in common.
Even more detrimentally fatal to the film's dramatic conception is the fact that most of the vital information is narrated offscreen in a ponderous manner. At the end of the film, a title card informs that Gericault died in l824, at the young age of 33, shortly after falling off a horse.
It's hard to describe the acting of the two leads, because both play enigmatic characters that register general attitudes rather than emotionally nuanced behavior. As Gericault, Miguel Bose wears a perpetually intense expression that is meant to convey brooding anguish and hysterical suffering. As Franconi, Bartabas' face is covered with mask for the entire duration, but he seems to have an impressive, if a bit monotonous, voice.
Part ritualistic pageantry about early nineteenth century circus life, part psychological mystery about artists' creative psyche, and mostly stylistic excess a la Ken Russell at his worst, Mazeppa is undoubtedly one of the weakest films in competition this year.