Wednesday, January 14, 2015

By a Nose

Film: Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

It’s always a mild surprise to me that years ago Gerard Depardieu was a sex symbol. This was obviously in the years before his diet consisted entirely of butter and goose livers. It’s hard not to see the man as a sex symbol when watching one of his early films. So what’s the premier French sex symbol to do to enhance his status at the height of his sexy beast stage? One option that would be hard to pass up is the chance to play one of the great tragic romantic heroes in Cyrano de Bergerac.

When people talk about great tragic romances, most go right to Romeo and Juliet. I don’t, because I don’t really like that story. The only character I like gets killed in the middle and our two principle characters are kind of dumb and end up dying mostly because they are kind of dumb. No, for me the best of the tragic romances is Cyrano. I’ve liked every version of this story that I’ve seen, be it the classic tragic version or the upbeat Hollywood rewrite as Roxanne.

If you are unfamiliar with the story, the basics are pretty simple. Soldier, adventurer, poet, and grand spirit Cyrano de Bergerac (Gerard Depardieu) is blessed with virtually everything that makes a man a man in the early 17th century. He’s got beauty of the spirit, bravery enough for 10 men, a sword arm that is the envy of every soldier, and the greatest and fastest wit in Paris. He also happens to be cursed with the largest nose anyone has ever seen. Cyrano is madly in love with Roxane (Anne Brochet), his cousin by marriage. He wants nothing more than her happiness. Only slightly less than her happiness, he wants her.

Roxane is completely unaware of his love for her. She becomes enamored of Christian de Neuvillette (Vincent Perez, who looks a little like James McAvoy). Christian is a new recruit in Cyrano’s outfit, and just as Cyrano is ready to profess his love for her, she admits her infatuation with the attractive new recruit.

As it happens, Christian has nearly the bravery of Cyrano except in one important situation: he is completely tongue-tied around women, and especially around a woman of the beauty of Roxane. This sets up an interesting situation for Cyrano. He wants Roxane to be happy and Roxane wants Christian, so it takes it upon himself to win the woman he loves for the man she thinks she loves. He does this by virtue of his poetic soul, composing heartfelt and astonishing love letters to her and signing Christian’s name.

The most famous moment in the story is after Christian’s failed attempt at wooing Roxane on his own. That night, he and Cyrano arrive outside her window and Christian, using Cyrano’s words, woos her successfully. Eventually during this episode, Cyrano speaks for himself, preventing Christian from speaking and saying what he truly feels, pretending all the while to be Christian. Eventually, one of Roxane’s powerful suitors, Comte Antoine de Guiche (Jacques Weber) sends the regiment to the front, putting both Cyrano and Christian at the heart of the war against Spain and putting both of their lives in danger.

As I said at the top, this story is my favorite tragic romance, and while I haven’t seen every adaptation of it, I’d be very surprised to find a better one than this one. Depardieu is damn near perfect in the role. He has the grand presence that the role requires, and that is very much what the role requires. Cyrano requires an actor who is capable of displaying a huge range of emotion, to display his own faults and revel in them. Depardieu is grand in his gestures and in his acting all while showing exactly what he is holding back. It’s a hell of a grand performance, and, while I haven’t seen everything the man has done, may well be the best thing he’s done in front of the camera.

In addition to Depardieu’s well-deserved nomination, Cyrano de Bergerac was nominated for four other Oscars: Foreign Language Film, Makeup, Set Direction, and Costume Design. I can see all four as worthy, and have no issues with it winning for Costume Design, because these are grand. I’m a little surprised at no nomination for Adapted Screenplay, because it certainly qualifies there.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a film that has been sadly forgotten, at least in this country. The fact that it is in French probably doesn’t help it with a general American audience, which is a shame. This is a film that should be better known. It’s beautiful to see and features one of the grand actors of his generation truly at the top of his game. The ending goes on a little long, but that’s a function of the story it tells.

Do yourself a favor. Track this down. If you need a concrete reason, the duel in the film’s opening is a joy. But watch it because the entire film is worth your time.

Why to watch Cyrano de Bergerac: There truly is no greater tragic lover in fiction than Cyrano, and there is no better Cyrano than Gerard Depardieu.
Why not to watch: The last 10 minutes go on too long.


  1. Bravo! Well said. I loved this film, despite the one musical moment where the score rips off Danny Elfman. And if I'm not mistaken, the movie's English subtitles are from the poetic translation done by none other than Anthony Burgess. Real horrorshow, that.

    1. You are correct about the Burgess translation. I see I forgot to mention that above.

  2. This was one of the very few acting nominations from a Foreign Language film, and it was well-deserved.

    In regards to if he's ever been better onscreen, they are completely different types of characters, but I might go with Jean de Florette as the best I've seen from him. It's a far more subdued performance, though.

    In regards to a Cyrano adaptation that you probably wouldn't like there's a film he did a few years later titled My Father the Hero. He actually played the same role in both the French version and the American remake, which kept quite close to the original. I was amused by the movie, but that's because A. I'm easily amused and B. I have a twisted sense of humor. I laughed the loudest at a joke that I know others feel is very sick.

    Of course, calling it a Cyrano adaptation is a huge stretch. He's a father trying to reconnect with his 14-going-on-24 year old American raised daughter. As a way to try to do something good for her he helps her try to win a boy she likes, including a scene where he hides in the bushes, telling her what to say.

    The thing is, I'm pretty sure this comedy would push at least two of your buttons and you would really hate it. And it's certainly not worth watching to be a "Cyrano completest". I mention it only because your note about not having seen a bad adaptation made me think of it.

    1. As you well know, Jean de Florette is coming later this year for me. I was surprised at how much I liked this film. I admit I was predisposed to like it going in, but this is a story that can easily go off the rails and get silly. One of the stronger points is the makeup. Cyrano's nose is large, but it's not out of bounds large.

      Still, it's a role that requires a particular type of actor to play it, and Depardieu was the right choice at the time. I'm not sure I can picture another actor doing the role as well.

  3. I absolutely love the play, and am kicking myself for not getting around to seeing this movie. I even successfully lobbied to put on the play when I was in high school (though I failed to land the title role and was cast as de Guiche, hrumph). - Nolahn

    1. If you love the play, you'll appreciate this adaptation of it. It's very much worth your time.

      Cyrano is one of those roles that I can see every budding actor wanting to tackle.