It is 1832. Europe is in turmoil of revolution and soon to be ravaged by cholera. Italians who resist the Austrian occupation of their country have fled to southern France where they are ruthlessly pursued and killed by special agents. Handsome, young, Angelo Pardi (Olivier Martinez), is an Italian fugitive whose wealthy but revolutionary-minded mother has purchased his rank of colonel. Upon learning that a friend has betrayed his cell of resistors, he determines to return to Italy carrying the funds raised for a defense.

But cholera has struck southern France. Roads and rivers are barricaded, quarantine is enforced, and he encounters death, decay, fear, and angry crowds who accuse every stranger of having caused the epidemic. Pardi meets an anxious doctor who teaches him a treatment for cholera, but moments later the doctor defies his own treatment to die of the illness caught from his patients.

As Pardi runs from both Austrian and French pursuers, he falls through a tiled roof into the life of the abandoned Pauline de Théus (Juliette Binoche). With almost comic formality, he becomes her chivalrous guide--her "angel(o)"--and leads her safely to her elderly husband through an improbable series of narrow escapes, including cholera itself. The doctor's dubious treatment comes in handy not only for saving her life but also as a pretext for nudity in their chaste relationship. A few years later, peace and health returned, Madame de Théus receives a letter from Italy. Her husband knows that he ought to let her go, but the credits roll as she gazes at the Alps and contemplates her decision.


Lavish shots of Provence and the French Alps, together with the evocative costumes and sets, make this film visually rich and enticing. The horseback escapades have all the timing and thrill of a late twentieth-century action picture, but their early nineteenth-century setting invests them with humor and grace. Computer-generated, Hitchcockesque crows flap ominously over the entire film signifying menace and death.

The intolerance of the frightened crowds, intent on lynching strangers, typifies human reactions to epidemics and their perceived causes. The numerous scenes of blue-faced corpses, plucked at by the insatiable crows, the quarantine hospital, and the ubiquitous fires of cremation or purification, convincingly recreate the atmosphere of a plague.

Unfortunately, the film is marred by disappointing liberties taken with the symptoms of cholera. A rapidly fatal condition that can kill its dehydrated, blue-faced victims within hours, this particular version of cholera has the implausible nicety of convulsions, spasms, and a tidy death, with nary a drop of the copious, rice-water diarrhea by which it is diagnosed.


In French, subtitled; based on the novel by Jean Giono.

Primary Source

Alliance Communications