MGM // 1990 // 138 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // March 9th, 2004
"My nose precedes me by 15 minutes."
Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand's famous play about a swordsman-poet with a gigantic heart and a proboscis to match, has been translated countless times to just about every medium and language known to man. Since its publication in 1897, the story of ill-starred Cyrano and his doomed passion for the beautiful Roxane has enjoyed universal acclaim; its elemental, larger-than-life tragicomic romance strikes a chord within anyone who has ever suffered the sweet agonies of unrequited love. In cinema, Cyrano has had several incarnations, among the most successful being the 1950 American production starring José Ferrer, and the 1987 modern-day adaptation Roxanne starring Steve Martin.
But in 1990, director Jean-Paul Rappeneau (Bon Voyage) brought the story back home to France with a lavishly mounted production starring Gérard Depardieu. This adaptation proved enormously successful, both financially and critically (the film was nominated for five Oscars, winning for Best Costume Design, and scored a Best Actor award for Depardieu at Cannes, as well as sweeping the César Awards in France). It would also prove Depardieu's breakthrough role, transforming the legendary actor into an international star. This 1990 version of Cyrano de Bergerac makes its long-awaited debut on DVD as part of MGM's World Films collection.
Cyrano de Bergerac (Depardieu) is a master swordsman, captain of the Gascony cadets, a man so skilled with the blade that he can defeat a hundred men singlehandedly without breaking a sweat, whose name strikes fear in the hearts of lesser men. But Cyrano is not only a soldier, but a poet, who cherishes words so ardently that he will hunt down an actor who performs poorly, and who is so passionate that he will toss away a year's salary simply to abort a mediocre stage production. Skilled as he is at both war and wit, Cyrano would seem to be the paragon of manhood -- yet beneath his veneer of bravado he is a shy, sad soul, having been cursed with an oversized nose that, to Cyrano, renders his features grotesque, unlovable.
His private pain is all the more acute for his unspoken love for the beautiful Roxane (Anne Brochet), whom he adores from afar as her cousin and close friend, a man of infinite courage yet unable to muster the nerve to make his feelings known. Cyrano's unfortunate situation comes to a head with the entrance of Christian (Vincent Perez), a new cadet, a man as handsome as Cyrano is plain -- but also as witless as Cyrano is brilliant. Inevitably, Christian falls for Roxane, but lacks the words to properly woo her; he enlists Cyrano's aid, and Cyrano, seeing an opportunity to speak the words to his beloved that he has kept hidden for so long -- even if it is indirectly -- agrees. Thus is set in motion one of the great love stories of literature, a poignant and bittersweet tale of lost love that has endured for centuries with no sign of slowing down.
Cyrano de Bergerac is a man of grand gestures, and Rappeneau's film is no different; it's bold, flashy, unafraid to go for the broad laugh or milk every last drop of pathos. The dialogue (preserving the verse form of the original, even in translation) is largely faithful to the play, brimming over with Rostand's often biting satirical wit, yet the film plays it straight, presenting Cyrano's tragic story with complete conviction. While the earlier 1950 version shines by virtue of José Ferrer's magnificent performance, it's a little too clean and sparse in that low-budget Hollywood B-movie way; this version brings the story to vivid life, immersing the viewer into its 17th century milieu with such attention to detail that one can almost smell the fumes rising from the sewers.
Depardieu's performance rivals Ferrer's in virtuosity even as it differs completely in style. At once completely unsuited for the role -- his hulking frame is entirely unlike the more graceful figure traditionally associated with the role -- and completely perfect -- is there a face as plain and yet so hauntingly poetic as his? -- Depardieu appears simultaneously powerful and pathetic, his eyes betraying the uncertainty and self-loathing that the rest of his brash, confident figure conceals. One of Depardieu's great strengths as an actor is his ability to convey imposing strength and tentative frailty in the same moment, and he puts that talent to great use here, in every scene he shares with Brochet's Roxane, and most powerfully in the famous "balcony" scene, in which Cyrano, hidden in the shadows, first feeds lines to Christian as he woos Roxane, and later speaks them himself, from the darkness, fully becoming the alter ego he has created.
The other performances in the film are largely two-dimensional, but by design; this is Cyrano's show, and the other actors are just that, players forming the comedic backdrop to Cyrano's romantic longings. Still, Perez's Christian stands out as a fine piece of acting in a thankless role; this Christian isn't played as a moron or a hapless twit, but a genuinely feeling, well-meaning young man who feels true passion, but has the bad luck, lacking Cyrano's wit or depth of soul, to be unable to express it as anything more profound than heated lust. The other actors (look for Swimming Pool's Ludivine Sagnier in a bit part) perform splendidly, especially Roland Bertin as the hapless poetry-loving baker Ragueneau, and Jacques Weber as the Comte de Guiche, the ostensible villain of the piece, who undergoes a memorable transformation over the course of the film, from sneering aristocrat to something more shaded and a little sad. Brochet is excellent in an understated, charming take on Roxane, bringing not only beauty but also intelligence and inner steel to the role. Roxane is the kind of character who can easily look foolish or capricious, but as played by luminous-eyed Brochet you can see how Cyrano would fall so completely for her -- she's not just a pretty face, but a woman of character whose love of words and wit is completely convincing, and every bit Cyrano's match.
MGM brings Cyrano to DVD with a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer that captures the sumptuous visuals of the film quite well. The print, while a little grainy, looks as good here as I remember it on the big screen, with excellent contrast and clarity. Audio, presented in Dolby 2.0 Stereo Surround in original French with optional English or Spanish subtitles, is clear and flawless, with clean dialogue and appropriate warmth to the music. In terms of extras, unfortunately MGM has only included a theatrical trailer. The film, with all its literary and historical connections, could have benefited greatly from some making-of featurettes or other background information, so the bare bones release is something of a letdown.
A French play translated to film and then translated to English via subtitles is bound to lose something, and Rappeneau doesn't slow down to make sure everyone's keeping up, so non-French-speaking audiences may have a hard time with the film if they're not already familiar with the story. And this being a fairly faithful adaptation, it preserves some scenes intact which may not play as well to today's audiences as they did in the 19th century -- such as the finale, which perhaps goes on about a minute too long for modern sensibilities and leads directly from a particularly poignant emotional moment to a grand bit of speechifying. Nevertheless, the heart and soul of the story comes through intact.
Marvelously acted and magnificently staged, Cyrano de Bergerac brings the classic story to passionate life with a production that captures the flavor and wit of the original as well as any that have come before or since. If you've yet to be introduced to this classic tale of lost love and its hero with the legendary schnozz, this is an excellent place to begin.
Cyrano de Bergerac is declared not guilty by reason of...panache!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Theatrical Trailer