Cyrano Variations and Views on Masculinity ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

Cyrano de Bergerac is one of France’s best known characters, a real person whose life has been overshadowed by a fictionalized version created by playwright Edmond Rostand in 1897.  In the musical “Cyrano,” the disfigurement that makes Cyrano a beast in love with the great beauty Roxanne (Haley Bennett), is height and, more specifically, achondroplasia. As Cyrano Peter Dinklage at 52 is a tad old, but his gravely voice is commanding and his visage heartbreakingly both filled with foolhardy braggadocio and plaintively hopeless love.

From his own accounts, Dinklage knows something about uneasy love affairs. He told People magazine that “I was raised Irish Catholic, so I totally feel unworthy of everything.” Yet he also said, “I was guilty of always falling for someone where it wasn’t reciprocated,” until he met his wife, Erica Schmidt, whom he married in 2005.

Schmidt adapted Rostand’s play, writing the book with music by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner and lyrics by Carin Besser and Matt Berninger–all four from the Grammy Award-winning rock band, The National. The stage production premiered in 2019 with Dinklage in the title role and Schmidt directing at the Daryl Roth Theatre in New York.

Schmidt wrote the screenplay, but Joe Wright (“Atonement” 2007, “Darkest Hour” 2017)  directs this flawed, but worthy adaptation.

The film begins with Roxanne who is dressing and complaining to her ladies maid and chaperone, Marie (Monica Dolan), scolds her for not wearing the red dress that the Count de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn) has sent. With no family one wonders where Roxanne’s financial support comes from. Marie knows, she needs to marry well.

Yet when we meet De Guiche he is a frowning, demanding older man who, like his companion, Valvert (Joshua James), has a hideously white powdered face and wig. They ride in the carriage to the theater, expecting to see the famous Montfleury perform, but, instead, they watch Montfleury bullied off the stage by Cyrano (Dinklage). De Guiche does not approve and the sneering Valvert challenges Cyrano to a duel.

While in the José Ferrer Oscar-winning 1950 film “Cyrano,” Valvert loses the duel with little fanfare and is discretely carried away, in this film, Valvert is left humiliated and attempts to kill Cyrano, who had spared him, once Cyrano has turned his back. Valvert dies and the death is not joyously celebrated. Dinklage’s Cyrano acknowledges the tragedy of death as a bitter surprise.

Also in the theater crowd was Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who, besides being the victim of a pickpocket, falls in love at first sight with Roxanne and she, too, has noticed him in the crowd.

Roxanne sends Marie to ask Cyrano to meet her discretely the next day. Encouraged by his friend Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin), Cyrano dares for the first time to believe that Roxanne, the daughter of an old friend and a distant cousin, might reciprocate feelings for him. He sets the bakery of Ragueneau (Peter Wight) as the place. On his way home, he is set upon by a gang of ruffians who fail in their assassination attempt, but we understand that Cyrano has powerful enemies.

In Ragueneau’s bakery, Cyrano learns that Roxanne is in love with Christian. At the barracks, Cyrano is challenged by Christian, but this interchange is not as exceedingly long as in the original play, because we must have time to sing and dance. The choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui doesn’t disappoint. The soldiers we meet are graceful and we’ll regret their perilous journey to war in the end. For now, we rejoice in their youth and limber limbs. The lush cinematography by Seamus McGarvey gives us a glowing Paris, a city of lights and romance and intrigue. The lighting kisses the lovely Bennett but shines in an unpleasantly greasy way on James’ ill-fated Valvert and Mendelsohn’s  scheming De Guiche.

There’s still beauty in the winter battle. If you’re not aware of the ending, stop here.

Christian romances Roxane by using Cyrano’s poetry and in the famous balcony scene, Cyrano’s linguistic wit wins Christian a kiss. Their love is threatened by de Guiche who decides he has waited long enough. He sends a cleric to inform Roxane that he will marry her or, if not, he still intends to hold her in a carnal embrace.

With Cyrano’s help, Roxane fools the cleric into marrying her and Christian while Cyrano stalls the impatient, lustful de Guiche. When de Guiche discovers the marriage, he commands Christian and Cyrano to the war. Cyrano cannot promise Roxane that he will protect Christian from death, but he does promise that Christian will write her every day.

While Cyrano has braved the gun fire of the Spanish every day to send a love letter he has written as Christian to Roxane, during a charge, Christian dies a photogenic death, more clearly suicidal than is suggested in the 1950 film.

Three years later, Cyrano is late for his weekly visit to the widowed Roxane who lives in a nunnery.

Diversity Casting

On the level of diversity casting, Dinklage, Harrison, Salahuddin and Mendelsohn would all provide points here. Salahuddin is African American and Latino as well as Muslim. Mendelsohn’s ancestors were Jewish.

The Man

The real Cyrano was Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (March 1619 to 28 July 1655) was a French novelist, playwright and duelist. Although he is best known as the inspiration for Edmond Rostand’s play, he did write some science fiction “L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (“Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon“) which was published posthumously. He did fight in the Siege of Arras (1640) during the Thirty Years’ War between France and Spain. He was wounded the day before the siege ended with the Spanish troops surrendering. He did have a cousin, Catherine de Bergerac, who was married to Baron Christian of Neuvillette. The real Cyrano did die from what might have been an assassination attempt at age 36.

The Play

The play takes place in 1640, beginning at the Hôtel de Bourgogne theatre that attracts commoners and nobility as patrons. It’s there that Christian de Neuville finds someone to identify a woman he has fallen in love with since his arrival a few days earlier. It is there that Cyrano bullies an actor (Montfleury) off the stage and duels with the Viscount Valvert. Count de Guiche is married, but wants to marry Roxane to the viscount so that he may have ready access to her.

Cyrano helps Christian win the heart of his beloved Roxane in the famous balcony scene. Christian marries Roxane, but before they can consummate their marriage, de Guiche sends Christian and Cyrano into the battlefield at the siege of Arras (war against the Spanish). Christian dies and Roxane believes that Christian was the poet that won her heart until 14 years later, when Cyrano dies.

Cyrano’s death takes place 14 years later and by that time, de Guiche respects Cyrano and even asks Roxane to warn Cyrano that his enemies have plans to ambush him.

The play has inspired several cinematic adaptations.

  • “Love Letters” (1945) with Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten and a happy ending. The film received four Oscar nominations and produced a hit song, “Love Letters.”
  • “Cyrano” (1950) stars José Ferrer with Mala Powers with William Prince as Christian. Ferrer won an Oscar for the role.
  • “Roxanne” (1987) was a contemporary comedy starring Steve Martin as a firefighter. Daryl Hannah played the titular Roxanne and Rick Rossovich was Chris.
  • “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1990) was a French-Hungarian production in French, starring Gérard Depardieu as Cyrano. The film won 10 César Awards in 1991 and Depardieu receive an Oscar nomination. Anne Brochet (“If You Don’t, I Will”) played Roxane and Vincent Perez (“The Crow: City of Angels”).

Cyrano ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

The 1950 Oscar-winning black-and-white film  was filmed on a sparse set with a lower budget than most costume dramas, the film is too tidy and the people never seem poor or ragged. Even Cyrano at the end is still nicely costumed.

Ferrer gives Cyrano dignity and panache and yet the poignancy of a man plagued by guilt and poor self-image. His nobility is allowing Christian to be a heroic, tragic poet in death, but Male Powers’ Roxane, while attractive enough, emotes little charisma. William Prince’s bland Christian de Neuvillette and Ferrer’s Cyrano devote themselves a beautiful, but relatively boring woman whose literary taste and talent does not leap off of the page.

The film is dominated by Ferrer’s performance with only Ralph Clanton’s Compte de Guiche rising to match him. Clanton, a Broadway actor, had played de Guiche against Ferrer’s Cyrano; he and Ferrer were the only actors carried over from the 1953 Broadway revival `production. Amazon Prime Video has a colorized version available.

Cyrano, My Love ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

The French language film, “Cyrano, My Love,” gives some background on Rostand. The year is 1897, and Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès)  is almost 30, has a wife and children. His plays have been performed by the great Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié), but his latest play, “La Princesse Lointaine,”  is not a success. He use of rhyme has been criticized.  Now he has an idea, but not a full play. The famous Constant Coquelin (Olivier Gourmet) has agreed to play the lead, but who will finance the production? The play finds sponsors (Marc Andréoni, Simon Abkarian) who requires a certain actress (Mathilde Seigner) get the starring role Roxane.

Rostand’s good actor friend Leo (Tom Leeb) is infatuated with a costume designer/seamstress Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah) Jeanne happens to admire Rostand, but doesn’t know what he looks like and Rostand pretends to be another writer, the ill-fated, but, at that time period, more successful, Georges Feydeau. Rostand helps Leo woo Jeanne.

Although slow at the beginning, it has both a zany “Noises Off” backstage panic of a farce mixed with a poignant muse-artist unrequited love story similar to “Shakespeare in Love.”

Director/writer Alexis Michalik has adapted his own play perhaps a more critical eye would have helped tighten the pacing of this film. Still, it is amusing enough and reminds the audience that Rostand’s style wasn’t so well received, but this character did capture the world imagination.

During the credits, archival film clips of the real Constant Coquelin performing as Cyrano are shown.

The de Bergerac Bluster

Dinklage is probably the only leading man or even major male actor over the age of 12 who is shorter than I am. Dinklage is four-foot-five. I am 4-foot-11, the same height as the legendary professional jockey Bill Shoemaker.

José Ferrer was about 5-foot-10. Gérard Depardieu is 5-foot-11. The bravado and masculine bluster, the foolhardy pride that prevents Cyrano from admitting his poverty and starvation reads differently for an above average size man.

I know that as someone the height of a 12-year-old (my clothes tell me I’m that age), I have fought a long battle against being infantilized, something possibly more likely because I am of East Asian descent, but also because of my height. We’ve seen this in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in an animated film that was supposed to be big on diversity.

Short men are sometimes said to have a Napoleon complex, but Napoleon, at 5-foot 5 or 6, was of average height. While Merriam-Webster defines a Napoleon complex as “domineering or aggressive attitude perceived as a form of overcompensation for being physically small or short,” these seems to put the onus on the person who is likely often victimized.  The kind of infantilization or smothering paternalism women, particularly petite women of color might experience takes a darker, crueler form toward short men. I’ve seen it as bullying and emasculation in high school. I was shocked to hear sports writers and men who bet on horse races speak so disrespectfully of an athlete like Bill Shoemaker (in contrast with their adulation for basketball players).  I can’t help but think of the Annie Leibowitz photograph of Shoemaker and Wilt Chamberlain. As  one  article  suggests,  the  assigning  masculinity  based  on  heights  is  as  aspect  of  toxic  masculinity.

For someone suffering from a disability, in Dinklage’s case, achondroplasia, the marginalization and intense emasculation is amplified. How do we usually see people with achondroplasia in costume dramas? Freaks, circus performers or court jesters?

In this respect, the 2021 film “Cyrano” forces the audience to look at something that affects more people. Since most of the actors playing Cyrano use a prosthetic nose, Rostand’s Cyrano’s physical affliction is easy to dismiss; the issue of the nose becomes almost comical. Cyrano the man with a nose that could be a perch for birds is an anomaly, a freak of nature.

Cyrano as someone who is shorter than the average male is a demographic that has been the topic of discussion and even research as shown above. Cyrano as a man with a type of dwarfism, is a man with a specific medical condition that affects a visible demographic.

 

What I do miss in the 2021 film is the forgiveness. The play, and the 1950 film “Cyrano de Bergerac,”  give de Guiche a reprieve. In the end, he admires Cyrano and even warns Roxan(n)e that Cyrano’s enemies plan an assassination attempt. Cyrano still has his friend Le Bret (who historically writes about Cyrano after his death).

Yet 2021 musical has Cyrano alone, visiting Roxanne. And his  ritual of coming to the convent every Saturday to tell widowed Roxanne of the news has not been long.  Instead of 14 years, only three have passed. Three years is hardly a time of long devotion and, for a woman, it does not carry the same significance. In the 1600s and even during the Victorian era such as the 1890s, a woman past the prime marriageable age by over a decade is something less desirable than a woman a mere three years older.

Even without that minor quibble, the movie’s ending is abrupt. The ending focuses on Roxanne and her grief instead of providing us with a lasting image of Cyrano’s panache. Bennett certainly sparkles and you can feel the intellectual chemistry between Bennett and Dinklage that contrasts the puppy dog infatuation between Bennett’s Roxanne and Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Christian.

This “Cyrano” tackles toxic masculinity in today’s world and challenges audiences to consider aspects of masculinity and views of people with disabilities or conditions like achondroplasia. Wright’s direction captures the dignity and the indignities, the beauty of romance and the sadness of missed opportunities.

“Cyrano” made its world premiere on 2 September 2021 at the 48th Telluride Film Festival. It had an award qualifying one-week theatrical run in Los Angeles mid-December. It will have a wider theatrical release in the United States on 28 January 2022 (25 February 2022 in the United Kingdom).

 

 

 

 

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