Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The best French language films - part 4: 'Cyrano de Bergerac'

Be sure to check out part 1, part 2, part 3
, and part 5 of the series.

I initially watched Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Oscar nominated adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) in middle school after reading the original play. It is, perhaps, the finest adaptation of Edmond Rostand's play, and since it's regarded as the one surviving version in the play's original language, it feels like the most authentic representation of Cyrano's melancholy life. As one of the most expensive French films in history, it's easy to understand why it's considered as the most sumptuous and detailed theatrical version of Rostand's play. The 1990 version is also noted as the first version of Cyrano de Bergerac in color, and it is, in my opinion, one of the greatest French films ever made.

The film stars renowned French actor, Gérard Depardieu as Cyrano de Bergerac and he gives one of his most exceptional performances. His performance is so stunning that not only was he the second actor nominated for an Oscar for playing Cyrano (José Ferrer actually won the Oscar for his 1950 incarnation), he is one of the few actors nominated for a French speaking role. By my count, no more than five actors were nominated for a French speaking role prior to Depardieu. All five of them were women.

The film tells the story of Cyrano de Bergerac - 17th century dramatist, poet, daredevil, sword fighter, romantic. At the start of the film, Cyrano disarms a nobleman for insulting his nose, and it remains one of my favorite scenes of the film. Certainly, the romance that unfolds is moving and tragic, but as a teenager it was Cyrano's bravado that delighted me. There is, quite frankly, something rather cool about him. He can disarm you with his words as brilliantly as he can with his sword.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a man who masks his deep shame of having a grotesquely large nose. He hides his humiliation behind a facade with bluster and wit, yet in his heart he yearns. He secretly loves the dazzling Roxane (Anne Brochet), but does not have the courage to reveal his love because of his looks. Tragically, Cyrano discovers that Roxane is besotted with Christian de Neuvillette (Vincent Perez), a handsome young soldier who is terrified of speaking in Roxane's presence. Cyrano decides to help young Christian win over Roxane, and when Christian realizes he possesses neither the wit nor the eloquence to gain her love, Cyrano becomes Christian's voice – he compiles love letters, poems, and even tells Christian what to say. Roxane falls in love with Christian, and Cyrano mourns his loss. Depardieu brings a great deal of sadness to a character often mistaken for being simply exuberant. The genius of his performance is his ability to balance the two sides of Cyrano's personality and he is all at once humorous, heartbreaking, and romantic.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a work that has been performed in France since 1897 and is still considered one of the greatest plays ever produced in France. This theatrical version, should be considered with no less regard than its original work. With its expensive 17th century sets, and gorgeous costumes – it's easy to see why it won the Oscar for Best Costume Design and was nominated for Art Direction. The screenplay adapted by Jean-Claude Carrière and director Jean-Paul Rappeneau allows the audience to hear the original French dialogue, and with linguist Anthony Burgess' translated English subtitles, the film preserves the iambic hexameter of the original play. All this gives the feeling of watching a poem acted out, like watching one of Cyrano's long romantic poems, rather than a play's adaptation. It's something I've grown to appreciate as I've gotten older – I suppose one year of college literature has something to do with it.

Cyrano de Bergerac is available on DVD and I really recommend purchasing it, because it's worth owning.

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