Among the many shrewd conflations made by Erica Schmidt in adapting Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac as a musical, first for the stage and then for the screen, is a mashup of two virtuoso displays of Cyrano’s verbal flair in the play’s opening scene. In Rostand, when a boorish nobleman insults Cyrano’s famously prominent proboscis, Cyrano proceeds to humiliate him by tossing off a score of ingenious nose-related taunts he might have used, had he the wit. Then, in the duel that follows, Cyrano ad-libs a mocking ballad as he toys with his opponent before stabbing him.
In Joe Wright’s film, Cyrano — played by Peter Dinklage, who is married to Schmidt and originated her version of Cyrano on the stage — turns the mocking ballad into a perverse rap battle against himself. While crossing swords with his opponent, Cyrano flagellates himself with colorfully burlesque put-downs (“I told a girl once I loved her — crickets / She looked at me and said, ‘I suppose I could sell tickets’”). In the process, a novel theological theme emerges: disappointment at or anger with God. The bitterest line is the last, in which Cyrano declares himself “living proof that God has a sick sense of humor,” but the idea is present from the opening lines, in which he declares that his appearance at birth prompted a nurse to wonder what God had been smoking. In between there’s this aside: “Don’t be so tough on God; everybody makes mistakes!”
Even before the song (“When I Was Born”) begins, the theme is present:
God gave us all a heart and brain,
opened up we’d seem the same,
But when he made our outward frame,
Such infinite variety brought mostly pain.
The reference to “our outward frame” and “infinite variety” goes beyond the familiar rhinological grievance of Rostand’s original Cyrano, who, as Schmidt has noted in interviews, has often been played by fine-looking actors in varyingly silly prosthetic noses. (See José Ferrer in the 1950 US production and Gérard Depardieu in the definitive 1990 French version, as well as Steve Martin in the 1987 romcom Roxanne.) Schmidt’s key creative choice was to take the nose out of the equation: to leave the source of the protagonist’s self-consciousness, if not self-loathing, unstated, or nearly so. With Dinklage in the role — perfectly suited to his characteristic wary intelligence, witty delivery, and brooding charisma, though he and Schmidt agree that she didn’t write it with him in mind — the focus of Cyrano’s angst defaults to his achondroplastic dwarfism. With different casting, it could just as easily be race, weight, disability, or some other physical trait. (Race is ostensibly a non-issue here, given the movie’s “colorblind” casting.)
What reportedly attracted Dinklage to the project was another creative choice: to commission songs and underscoring from members of the indie-rock band The National, with music by brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner and lyrics by husband-and-wife team Matt Berninger and Carin Besser. Dinklage sings in the same baritone register, though not with the same range or power, as Berninger, but it’s The National’s moody, melancholy vibe that really resonates both with the actor and with the story: Cyrano’s tragic, secret love for the beautiful Roxanne (Haley Bennett, Hillbilly Elegy); the mutual infatuation of Roxanne and a handsome but prosaic soldier named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.); and the thorny romantic intrigue of Cyrano lending his poetic gifts to Christian to woo Roxanne.
Bennett originated Schmidt’s Roxanne on the stage — and the actress also happens to be in a relationship with Wright, director of Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina. (They have a daughter together.) Wright, naturally, saw the stage production and wanted to adapt it for the screen, and his artful compositions, showy camerawork, and playful approach to cinematic form are a big part of what makes this Cyrano a joy, for all the bittersweetness of the material. (Interviewing Wright five years ago, my friend Bilge Ebiri remarked that he sometimes shot scenes like a musical even though no one was singing.) When Cyrano makes his grand entrance at a theater to cut short a performance by an actor he disapproves of, Wright shoots Dinklage striding through the crowd with a long tracking shot and a low camera angle that puts his face among those of the patrons on either side of him, making him larger than life. The handheld camerawork in a well-staged fight sequence, with Cyrano beset by ten assailants on a dark staircase at night, is energetic enough that you might not notice that it’s all done in one take. And Roxanne and Christian’s lovely, yearning duet “Every Letter” — which of course is really a trio with Cyrano, though the singers never share the same space — is visualized in impressionistic montage with envelopes swirling in the air like giant snowflakes.
A new song written for the film, “Every Letter” is a standout in a score that includes some forgettable numbers. The musical high point, though, is the devastating ballad “Wherever I Fall,” which adds a new dimension to the theological angst established in “When I Was Born.” Set on the battlefield, it’s sung by three anonymous guards (the first is Glen Hansard of Once) writing farewell letters to loved ones. Resigned to their fate, their last thoughts are to assure their loved ones that they were at peace in the end. All three verses end with the haunting line “Tell ’em not to cry at all / Heaven is wherever I fall.” Each verse alludes in some way to faith, hope, or love — most poignantly that the third guard, whose ailing father feared he was bound for hell: “He wasn’t one of God’s best men,” the guard admits, “but I loved him anyway.” The pandemic-era production was filmed in Sicily, and Mount Etna, a nearly perpetually active volcano, makes a stunning backdrop for the battlefield sequences. The Baroque-era town of Noto provided locations for much of the rest of the shoot, with the cast in colorful, not overly elaborate period-evocative costuming.
Dinklage swaggers and glowers magnificently and sings decently, but he’s at his best in quiet, intimate moments, especially with Roxanne and with his confidante Le Bret (a genial Bashir Salahuddin), the only one who sees his pain. A private meeting between Cyrano and Roxanne, first raising and then dashing long-suppressed hope against hope, is especially moving; Dinklage packs extraordinary emotion into a tortured but understated “Yes” or “No.” Bennett, whose lovely mezzo-soprano voice is both expressive and strong, rises to a tricky acting challenge, making Roxanne kind and sensitive as well as passionate, yet oblivious to the passion of the one person to whom she is perhaps closest in the world. Harrison’s Christian is just complex enough to be sympathetic, and for once has moral misgivings about Cyrano’s scheme from the outset. As the villainous Duke de Guiche, Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One) is in his element, and when he growls his villain’s “I Want” song (“What I Deserve”), I was reminded a bit of Jeremy Irons as Scar singing “Be Prepared” in The Lion King.
The lowkey resolution of the theological themes, such as it is, comes in a few lines, partly from Rostand, in the final scene. The setting is a convent where Cyrano visits Roxanne regularly. A nun, here named Sister Claire (Singaporean actress Anjana Vasan), expresses concern about Cyrano’s soul, but her superior forbids her to try to convert him. That evening, Cyrano, who often teases Sister Claire, tells her that tonight, for once, he will let her pray for him — to which she replies that she hasn’t waited for his permission. Seeing the evening light filling the chapel, Cyrano remarks to Roxanne, “They say light is the soul of a holy space. It’s designed to be enough…enough beauty to just let go.” Cyrano isn’t ready, even now, to let go of his pride, and Roxanne isn’t ready to let him go, but we can cling forever to nothing in this world. Cyrano, in its tender final moments, knows the painful truth of this.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.