By Owen Gleiberman
Updated June 07, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

France must be the only country that could produce a big, splashy historical romantic epic that consists of two actors staring at each other without moving their facial muscles. In The Horseman on the Roof, which is set during the cholera epidemic of the 1830s, the actors are, if nothing else, terrific specimens of the high-cheekbone school. Olivier Martinez, as an Italian revolutionary who seeks refuge in France, has night-black eyes, a molded Neanderthal brow, and the kind of ”brooding” male-model swarthiness that fashion editors swoon over; he’s like Keanu Reeves’ Mediterranean older brother. And Juliette Binoche, as the ravishing (married) blossom he shepherds through strife-torn Provence, is at her most China-doll delicate. (With her face slathered in virginal white makeup, she looks centuries away from her first wrinkle.)

These two make their way through a landscape of luxuriously photographed chaos and blood. Nerve-jangled horses gallop through wheat fields. Crowds of angry peasants parade the streets in search of traitors. And everywhere, there are victims of the plague — rail-thin, bluish corpses frozen in the grimaces of their own death throes. Yet the turbulent, roiling images amount to an art-house oxymoron; we’re looking at calendar-art squalor. At the center of the storm are Martinez and Binoche, basking in the reflection of each other’s beauty, both so pure that they’d never deign to sully their romantic attraction by actually doing anything. When the two finally have a physical encounter, it’s only because she’s fallen prey to disease. To save her, he has to rub healing balm all over her body; he can touch, but he can’t enjoy. The Horseman on the Roof is so high-minded it never generates a pulse. C-