The Cyrano you’re unlikely to see

Cyrano de Bergerac is the name of Edmond Rostand’s play directed by Chris Abraham, set to open at the Shaw Festival in a couple of weeks.

But that same 19th century play is the basis for a new film named Cyrano, actually a film musical based on a recent stage musical adaptation of Rostand’s original. After briefly opening in December 2021 –something they do in order to qualify for the Oscars– the film went into wide release February 25th, not even two weeks ago. It has made roughly $3.8 million of its $30 million budget. I went to see it this week at my local Scarborough CINEPLEX, knowing that it couldn’t last much longer, and suspecting that its poor box office performance was not a proper reflection of its merits.

I was the only person in the theatre, for the one showing that day at this location.

There are several reasons why it might be doing poorly, up against blockbusters, at the end of the pandemic, with a war breaking our hearts.

The most obvious difference? Instead of a cantankerous hero with a big nose, we get Peter Dinklage, a 4’4” tall hero.

Roxanne (Haley Bennett) and Cyrano (Peter Dinklage)

Don’t misunderstand me, I love the guy. He has a wonderful speaking voice and a good singing voice. You may recall him from Elf (2003) as Miles Finch, the famous author of children’s books.

Dinklage’s portrayal of a hero unable to believe that the beautiful girl could possibly return his affections is totally relatable. And he’s brilliant in the part. I can even believe his swordplay.

While audiences haven’t shown up in theatres to prove that they can make the willing suspension of disbelief, it’s a beautiful idea (Peter Dinklage’s height, in place of the usual big nosed Cyrano), at least in theory

That is not the only change. We meet Roxanne (Haley Bennett) first, only encountering Cyrano later. Roxanne’s part seems enlarged to my eye. Is it relevant that Haley Bennett is having a relationship with director Joe Wright? possibly.

And the hero is different in other ways too. Both the 1950 film of the Rostand play with Jose Ferrer and the 1990 Gerard Depardieu film en français are mostly Rostand and a hero with a big nose, meaning a cranky SOB who has so many enemies that he is ambushed and fatally injured at the end of the play, to set up his death scene. Purists who are fond of either of the aforementioned films or who love the play as Rostand wrote it will be bothered by the ending as given to us by the team of playwright Erica Schmidt and director Joe Wright.

The love-duet we get between the hero & his beloved bugged me so much I left the theatre right away without staying for the credits. While I mentioned that the director is in love with Roxanne (that Joe Wright and Haley Bennett are having a relationship, possibly married by now) in fact the adaptation by Erica Schmidt is really the issue, as she puts a love-duet in place of the usual ending of the play, totally emasculating Cyrano in the process.

Instead he’s been made nicer.

(shudder)

Their duet is titled “No Cyrano” although perhaps more properly it should be titled “No Joe!” or “No Erica”, my cries at their changes, marring Rostand’s hero.

Cyrano has had a nose job. And it’s not pretty.

Until that moment though, I was mostly enraptured, hypnotized, won over. If you do get to see it on the big screen you’ll see $30 million worth of choreography, art direction, beautiful design and cinematography up there on the screen. The score for the musical by Bryce and Aaron Dessner, two rock musicians reminding me of the gentler numbers in Les Miserables. It’s easily intelligible, sometimes excellent.

There is one musical number that moved me to tears, namely “Wherever I fall”. We hear soldiers speak of war, then watch them actually go into battle. Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr) falls before us, Cyrano wounded not in an ambush by his enemies, but in the same battle, three years before his death scene. The link I’m giving you is really like a demo version, and audio only. The visuals accompanying this in the film are stunning.

Now if they would just re-write the finale, not as a duet but as a soliloquy with that last line back in place, we might have something truly brilliant.

Here’s Rostand in translation from the Project Gutenberg online version found here:

I can’t decide if the last line is wit or a punch-line to a joke, possibly because I am not sure I get all the nuances and allusions/echoes in the line. In a musical I imagine it ending with a brilliant flourish somewhat like the very end of Debussy’s piano prelude number 12, or Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin: but just the end, mind you, as it must be set up by something respectful and serious in tone.

But please, not a love duet.

So for what it’s worth, read it & weep. And thank you Project Gutenberg.

CYRANO:
I tell you, it is there,
There, that they send me for my Paradise,
There I shall find at last the souls I love,
In exile,–Galileo–Socrates!
LE BRET (rebelliously):
No, no! It is too clumsy, too unjust!
So great a heart! So great a poet! Die
Like this? what, die. . .?
CYRANO:
Hark to Le Bret, who scolds!
LE BRET (weeping):
Dear friend. . .
CYRANO (starting up, his eyes wild):
What ho! Cadets of Gascony!
The elemental mass–ah yes! The hic. . .
LE BRET:
His science still–he raves!
CYRANO:
Copernicus
Said. . .
ROXANE:
Oh!
CYRANO:
Mais que diable allait-il faire,
Mais que diable allait-il faire dans cette galere?. . .
Philosopher, metaphysician,
Rhymer, brawler, and musician,
Famed for his lunar expedition,
And the unnumbered duels he fought,–
And lover also,–by interposition!–
Here lies Hercule Savinien
De Cyrano de Bergerac,
Who was everything, yet was naught.
I cry you pardon, but I may not stay;
See, the moon-ray that comes to call me hence!

(He has fallen back in his chair; the sobs of Roxane recall him to reality; he looks long at her, and, touching her veil):

I would not bid you mourn less faithfully
That good, brave Christian: I would only ask
That when my body shall be cold in clay
You wear those sable mourning weeds for two,
And mourn awhile for me, in mourning him.
ROXANE:
I swear it you!. . .
CYRANO (shivering violently, then suddenly rising):
Not there! what, seated?–no!
(They spring toward him):
Let no one hold me up–
(He props himself against the tree):
Only the tree!
(Silence):
It comes. E’en now my feet have turned to stone,
My hands are gloved with lead!
(He stands erect):
But since Death comes,
I meet him still afoot,
(He draws his sword):
And sword in hand!
LE BRET:
Cyrano!
ROXANE (half fainting):
Cyrano!
(All shrink back in terror.)
CYRANO:
Why, I well believe
He dares to mock my nose? Ho! insolent!
(He raises his sword):
What say you? It is useless? Ay, I know
But who fights ever hoping for success?
I fought for lost cause, and for fruitless quest!
You there, who are you!–You are thousands!
Ah!
I know you now, old enemies of mine!
Falsehood!
(He strikes in air with his sword):
Have at you! Ha! and Compromise!
Prejudice, Treachery!. . .
(He strikes):
Surrender, I?
Parley? No, never! You too, Folly,–you?
I know that you will lay me low at last;
Let be! Yet I fall fighting, fighting still!
(He makes passes in the air, and stops, breathless):
You strip from me the laurel and the rose!
Take all! Despite you there is yet one thing
I hold against you all, and when, to-night,
I enter Christ’s fair courts, and, lowly bowed,
Sweep with doffed casque the heavens’ threshold blue,
One thing is left, that, void of stain or smutch,
I bear away despite you.
(He springs forward, his sword raised; it falls from his hand; he staggers, falls back into the arms of Le Bret and Ragueneau.)
ROXANE (bending and kissing his forehead):
‘Tis?. . .
CYRANO (opening his eyes, recognizing her, and smiling):
MY PANACHE.

Curtain.

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