Many years ago there used to be a small arts cinema in Cambridge, down a side passage, tucked away in a space in the fourth dimension between other buildings. It had by far and away the most comfortable seats of any of the cinemas, and it was small, unpretentious, and student-y. I’ve seen all my favourite films there, I think; Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, Woody Allen’s Manhatten Murder Mystery, the beautiful Emmanuel Béart in Un Coeur en hiver, the legend that was James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. And I distinctly recall watching there the 1990 version of Rostrand’s great melodrama, Cyrano de Bergerac. On a nostalgia trip a week or so ago, I ordered a cheap DVD copy of this film and watched it again the other evening. It was every bit as wonderful as I remembered; lavish, dramatic, marvelously acted, heartbreakingly sad. Gérard Dépardieu is Cyrano, and it must be one of his best roles ever. Even without the prosthetic nose attachment, Dépardieu is no one’s idea of handsome; a big grizzly bear of a man, barrel-chested, thick-necked, eyes too close set, no plane of his face symmetrical to any other. And yet what tremendous charisma he radiates, such unexpected grace of movement, so much yearning in his expression and yes, undeniable, overwhelming, bouleversant panache, the word that Cyrano added to the English language. ‘All I have left is my panache’ Cyrano famously utters at the end of his life, and frankly that alone is more than most of us can hope for. There’s a wonderful scene, halfway through the film when a little boy who we’ve seen on previous occasions watching, overawed, from the crowd, clearly fascinated by this extraordinary man, wakes in the night to the sound of the army moving out to war. He rushes to the window and there, on horseback in the middle of his company is Cyrano, his hero. Cyrano sees him, and in a gesture of great delicacy salutes his young friend, and I defy any viewer’s heart not to rush out to the little boy’s open-mouthed, captivated adulation. In the long, liquid gaze that passes between them the whole mystery of masculinity is encapsulated, the young boy’s idolatry of Cyrano’s raw, physical power and his intelligence, and the soldier-poet’s acknowledgment of a young, beautiful boy who will one day take his place in the world of men.
Oh yes, Cyrano is admirable in many ways, but he is utterly convinced that love will always be missing from his life because of his extra-large nose. This monstrosity means that even the love of the ugliest woman will be denied him, he thinks, and alas, it is not the ugliest woman he loves by any means. Instead, Cyrano has lost his heart to his gorgeous cousin, Roxane, who, he is convinced, will never be able to love him. The extent of his love for Roxane is visible in the vast sublimation he must make for it; Cyrano’s strength and stamina are almost terrible, he is indefatigable, relentless, ferocious. The film opens with him disrupting an evening at the theatre and fighting a duel, whilst all the time composing a lengthy, clever ballad. When the furore finally dies down, he hears that another poet friend is on the run after his libelous verse has resulted in a hundred men awaiting him at his lodgings with vengeance in their hearts. All in a night’s work for Cyrano, who rushes off with something like glee to tackle them single-handed. Perhaps knowing that we are loved – or even lovable – makes us sleepy and slow and fearful for our own safety. With no prospect of love, Cyrano is fearless and brave, but also prickly and uncompliant. He’s not there to do anyone any favours.
That is, until Roxane admits to him that she is in love with Christian de Neuvillette, a new ‘cadet’ or nobleman soldier, in Cyrano’s regiment. Cyrano’s reluctant promise to her to keep an eye on the new recruit has unexpected results. It’s the seventeenth century and everyone (in France at least) is in love with poetry. Roxane is a ‘précieuse’, that’s to say one of the wealthy, well-born women who power the hugely popular salon society, and being good with words is an essential attribute of any would-be lover. Christian is more of the strong but silent type and so Cyrano offers to be his voice, to write the letters for him that will win Roxane’s heart and, by this means, to express his adoration of her through a more pleasing form. My favourite scene in the film takes place in Roxane’s garden at night as the two men come to court her together. At first, Cyrano whispers to Christian the lines he’ll need, but when Roxane wonders why he’s speaking so slowly, Cyrano takes over, using the cover of darkness and shrubbery to hide himself. It’s beautifully played, and Cyrano is evidently overcome with the emotion of finally speaking to Roxane, finally articulating the sentiments he’s been nurturing in his love-swollen heart. It’s Christian who gets to climb up the balcony and gain admittance to her chamber, but we know it’s Cyrano’s words that have burned with the true fire of passion. In some versions, Christian’s a cardboard cut-out, a man who desires but whose stupidity makes him fundamentally unworthy. But in this film, he’s a fine man in his own right, who comes to the disquieting realization, as the plot unfolds, that he is not really the man that Roxane loves.
I’d better not reveal any more of the story, except to say that it’s a tale of unreasonable fidelity. Roxane remains faithful to Christian (or who she thinks he is), Cyrano remains faithful to Roxane, but most tragic of all, he remains faithful to his sense of himself as unlovable and only reveals himself as the origin of the words Roxane fell in love with as he lies dying. How I wept! Although it takes Cyrano an unfeasibly long time to offload the mortal coil and so I had a chance about half way through the death scene to pull myself together a bit. But the film is testimony to the power that beautiful words of love have over a woman, and a reminder that the ability to express one’s soul endures long after youthful good looks have faded. It’s also a crying shame that few men outside of France have the ability to put a poem of seduction together, but for any man out there who’d like to have a go, rent the movie, borrow some lines, impress the woman you adore. And let Cyrano’s tragic tale remind you that the imperfections mean nothing when measured against the expression of true love.