Embarrassed by his large nose, a romantic poet/soldier romances his cousin by proxy.
OSCAR winner for Best Costume Design
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Cyrano de Bergerac is a 17th century Parisian poet who dazzles everyone with his extraordinary wit and flashy swordsmanship. In love with his beautiful cousin Roxane, Cyrano’s confidence falters on one point: his unbelievably large nose, which he believes renders him hideous to all womankind. Christian, a handsome and brave but stupid cadet who has fallen in love with Roxane, uses Cyrano’s words to woo her. When both Cyrano and Christian are sent to war, the line between inner and outer beauty is blurred for Roxane.
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand is one of the world’s dramatic treasures—so it’s fitting that in 1990 Jean-Paul Rappeneau adapted it for film, garnering accolades and creating one of the greatest films of all time. The secret to Cyrano’s success is that it has something for everyone. At the heart of it is the enduring love story, but the drama is funny, poignant, heroic, and exciting. Rappeneau’s production adds icing on the cake in the form of beautiful cinematography, dazzling costumes and sets, and stirring music by Jean-Claude Petit. Gérard Depardieu’s towering performance as Cyrano is in all ways irreproachable.
The film follows roughly the scenic structure of the play, though its interesting and accessible opening follows a young boy attending the theatre with his father in the mid-17th century. The scenes in the theatre are wonderfully atmospheric, introducing the stunning noblewoman and orphan Roxane (Anne Brochet) and her gauche, sinister, much older suitor the Count de Guiche (Jacques Weber) and his cloddish protégé Valvert. While they survey the pre-play proceedings from the balcony, among the rabble on the ground floor is the soldier Christian de Neuvillette (Vincent Perez), the baker/poet Ragueneau (Roland Bertin), and LeBret (Philippe Mourier-Genoud). The latter two are anxious about the appearance of their friend Cyrano.
When Cyrano sees Roxane later, she reveals she has a crush on Christian. Meeting at their friend Ragueneau the baker’s, Roxane knows that Christian is in Cyrano’s regiment and makes him vow to keep an eye on him and arrange a meeting if possible. When Cyrano goes to his Gascony regiment, Christian is astonished at his nose and insults him to the limit. However, Cyrano, taking Roxane’s admonition seriously, greets Christian like a brother and tries to help him win Roxane’s soul, as she is known to love poetry. Cyrano writes letters for Christian to woo Roxane. Roxane is seduced by the letters and wants to meet Christian in person. Meanwhile, DeGuiche is plotting to marry her. The meeting goes badly when Christian is tongue-tied; the only way for him to regain Roxane’s affections is a night soliloquy on her balcony, with Cyrano shouting the words of love in the darkness.
With DeGuiche on his way to perform a clandestine marriage ceremony, Cyrano intercepts the infuriated Count long enough for Roxane and Christian to wed first. The Count uses his power to send the Gascony regiment to the wars in the France. Christian promises to “write” every day. In fact it is Cyrano at the front who, in addition to keeping up the spirits of his starving comrades, risks his life to deliver letters to Roxane. Roxane at that moment arrives in disguise at the front with Ragueneau, who brings food to the troops. At this point Christian has figured out that Cyrano loves Roxane himself and urges him to tell her. Tragedy strikes and prevents the truth from being known for another fifteen years.
I have seen the play in English and French, and the character of Cyrano requires a lot of an actor—however, it is a chance for a leading man to not necessarily be handsome. Gérard Dépardieu is one of France’s greatest actors, and he is the natural choice for the role, handling the tender poetic scenes with the same panache with which he blusters through the swordfighting and bravado. It would seem from the beginning of the film that Roxane’s function is merely decorative, but after visiting the troops at the front she slowly develops in maturation until the last few scenes where she finally seems to grow into womanhood. The supporting characters are also important, with the naïve and kindhearted Ragueneau—who wants to be a poet but whose wife sacrifices his books for wrapping pastry—being particularly memorable. DeGuiche, while ostensibly the villain, is also sometimes its comic relief and by the end a somewhat tragic character. Vincent Perez makes the mildly amusing character of Christian as appealing as he can be.
Cyrano de Bergerac as originally written is a very stage-y piece. The characters speak in rhyme, which is tackled differently in different English translations, though the translators of the film do an excellent job of conveying the musicality and rhythm as well as the meaning. By giving us the character of the boy at the beginning, who also reappears as he watches from his bedroom window the Gascony regiment going to the wars, we almost feel as if we, too, have lived through as a minor character in Cyrano’s story.
This is a delightful piece of filmmaking and truly memorable.