For many, there is a piece of art which, from the moment you come into contact with it, changes everything about the way you engage with the world. It could be a song, a painting, a sculpture, a photo, or a story, but we all have that one thing that in the darkest times helps to inspire a way through. Playwright and poet Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a romantic tragicomedy first written and performed in 1897, is such a seminal work for this reviewer. A copy of my aunt’s book was discovered in the bunker-turned-storage space in my house, and, soon after, was devoured. Similar to the works of William Shakespeare in terms of rhythmic dialogue, intelligent characters, and a notion of love over all, Cyrano de Bergerac also centers on a character whose accomplishments are many and admirers are countless. Yet, due to his own self-image, he’s shattered any chance of love with the woman he adores. As an adolescent struggling with self-identity, the idea that a grown man known for strength, courage, intelligence, and wit could struggle with opening his heart out of fear touched me deeply. This, of course, should shock no one familiar with the play as Rostand’s work is considered by French Theater to be one of the best to be produced, with over 200,00 productions made since its original production. Taking a different approach on the tale is actor/writer Alexis Michalik’s directorial feature debut Cyrano, My Love which tracks Rostand through the creative process and first performance the play. Though there are shades of familiarity in his approach to historical adaption, some short-handing of content, and a small dose of racial tropes, Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love is full of rapid-fire dialogue, engaging performances, and sublime direction, all of which capture the energy of a play on celluloid.
The fact that the public hate his latest play, La Princesse Lointaine (The Distant Princess), means the success Edmond’s (Thomas Solivérès) dreamed of is once more gone from his grasp, despite incredible support from his wife Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing) and lead actress Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié). Two years later, with nary a word written and Rose beginning to lose her patience with Edmond, Sarah arrives with an opportunity for him to work with acclaimed actor Constant Coquelin (Olivier Gourmet), as he’s looking for a new play to perform. Unable to tell Sarah that he has nothing to offer, Edmond sets about writing, eventually finding inspiration around him to craft a play based upon the exploits of 17th Century France’s author, dualist, playwright and more, Cyrano de Bergerac. But inspiration comes at a cost. For Edmond, it may require the loss of his marriage, his best friend Léo Volny (Tom Leeb), and his career. If he can pull it off, his play may just out live them all.
Any comparisons to director John Madden’s 1998 Shakespeare in Love are apt as Michalik was inspired by that film to create a story around Rostand. Initially a stage production under the name Edmond, the adaptation to cinema not only makes an incredible amount of sense, but (and this is the most impressive aspect) Michalik manages to maintain the sense of staging a play even when clearly on a studio set. Consider the opening wherein the title card is presented. After an extended sequence, Edmond walks out into a Parisian street, snow gently falling, as the camera lifts to show the skyline. Then, in lovely calligraphy, the title appears, as if drawn on a postcard. There is something absolutely dramatic about the image that pushes away reality as it grasps the imagination. It is, one suspects, a lovely nod to a key element of the original play, as well as this film, which is the art of letter-writing. The whole film is a love letter to French theater and Cyrano de Bergerac, specifically, so this little element is an amusing and sweet touch. But where the comparisons really come into focus is how so many moments in Edmond’s life correlate directly to the events of the play. The wonderfully hilarious sequence in which Cyrano makes his entrance involves a great deal of verbal sparring and oral flagellation, which is depicted in Cyrano, My Love as taking place between the owner of a café, Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), and a racist customer. What should be a tense sequence as Honoré reacts to the customer’s rude racial torts is made hilarious from the lingual dressing down. Moments like these pepper Cyrano, My Love, except where it felt more on the nose (no pun intended) in Shakespeare, Cyrano’s reference points feel far more organic, even if slightly obvious to those who know the play. Why they’re more organic in nature has to do with Edmond’s role as playwright. Either he’s taking liberties with Honoré’s words in order to adapt them as Cyrano’s or he’s drafting them himself once he finds himself the accidental participant in a courtship between his best friend Leo and costumer’s assistant Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah).
One downside of this approach is how frequently it makes the presumption that audiences know who the characters are. Edmond is the focus, therefore time is spent on what he values and how he engages with the world. Others are mostly left to subtext, requiring the audience to decide who these people are. Leo, for example, is first described as a womanizer who’s bad with money. This isn’t explicitly stated, but is suggested through dialogue by Edmond and through action by Leo. Yes, Leo is meant to inspire the character of Christian, the beautiful but slightly dim friend and romantic rival to Cyrano, except Leo is not Christian. Thankfully, as the play continues, the audience is shown the depth of Leo, much of which is to the credit of Leeb who steals virtually every scene he’s in just by virtue of his natural charm in the role. Solivérès plays Edmond wonderfully, conveying the complex nature of a playwright struggling to reach the heights of creation but hindered by his own self-doubt, making the character seem double-dealing, even selfish, while also honorable and sweet. Despite Leeb drawing the light away from his castmates when on screen, the film works best when Solivérès and Leeb play off one another, their chemistry being some of the best in the film. However, characters like Sarah, rival playwright Georges Feydeau (played by Michalik), and even the organizations which oversee playhouses aren’t particularly explained. The audience is just expected to go along with it. Another strange aspect is how, of all the characters in the film, the only one of African descent is Martial’s Honoré. It’s made odder by the lack of any other African faces, even in the background. The character is used in several ways to prop up the flailing Edmond, a trope used in so many films and plays that they are considered outlandish and insulting in modern cinema. Despite these idiosyncrasies, there remains plenty to see in Cyrano, My Love and even more to enjoy.
Fans of Rostand’s play are going to take so much to delight in this film. It’s not just the performances large and small from cast members or the incredible sets or the way the dialogue just zips along, but also the direction working in concert to create the sensation of movement even when a monologue occurs. Cyrano, My Love is all about momentum and, from the moment the play begins, as the voiceover instructs the audience on the various significant moments of the times, nothing stops until the end. In fact, Michalik structures everything so that even the performance of the play acts as a booming crescendo before the credits roll. Certainly it makes sense for the actual performance of the play to be in the climax, but it’s the way Michalik uses the play throughout the entire film which makes the grand performance powerful. Viewed through the lens of a theater fan and self-identified fan of the original play, Michalik’s Cyrano is about raising up French Theater and it’s performers as much as Rostand. He does this by offering moments in which the audience gets a chance to understand what the play means to them individually, what it means to them to be a part of something which initially appeared as a desperate attempt at success but suddenly revealed itself to be deeper, more personal, more rich, and more lasting. Even as Michalik’s direction shifts toward the climax, removing the magical, illusory nature of theater for a setting more akin to the real world, creating a disorientation the end of the play doesn’t deserve, the choices he makes along the way are all about finding the best way to represent the actors as they recreate the first production. However that moment is received, it’s nonetheless clear the profound respect Michalik possesses for Rostand and his play, shining through in every frame of Cyrano, My Love.
In select theaters beginning October 18th, 2019.
For more information on Cyrano, My Love and where to find screenings head to Roadside Attractions official website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.