One of the great French super-productions, everything about Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s 1990 version of the classic story of Cyrano de Bergerac reeks of class - a fact recognised by the French Academy of Cinema, which awarded it 10 Césars in 1990. The pedigree of the source material is impeccable – Edmond Rostand’s classic play from 1898 is one of the greatest dramas in French literature and as timelessly perceptive in its treatment of romance and human emotions as Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses, although certainly less cynical. This play is adapted, retaining the rhyming couplets, by Jean-Claude Carrière, screenwriter for Buñuel, Godard and Oshima among others (this in turn is wonderfully adapted in the English subtitle translation by Anthony Burgess). The film is photographed by Pierre Lhomme (La Maman et la Putain, Quartet) and scored by Jean-Claude Petit (Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources). Gérard Depardieu gives one of his greatest performances as Cyrano and the whole enterprise is directed with panache by Jean-Paul Rappeneau.
The public are out in force so see the legendary actor Montfleury perform in Clorize at the theatre – musketeers, cavalry, nobles, tradesmen, the general public and even exalted members of the Académie Française. However, the notorious and belligerent loudmouth Cyrano de Bergerac (Gérard Depardieu) offended by the actor’s affected mannerisms, has warned Montfleury not to set foot on the stage. When he appears Cyrano causes a minor riot, boots the aging actor off the stage and takes on any member of the audience who will dare to challenge him, but none are a match for his sword or ready wit. Challenged to the duel by viscount Valvert, Cyrano breezily composes an impromptu poem during the fight before delivering the final blow. All this is however is a performance for just one person, Cyrano’s beautiful cousin Roxane (Anne Brochet) – the warning to Montfleury because he believed his cousin had been sullied by Montfleury’s gaze, while the late Valvert just happened to be engaged to her.
In love with Roxane himself, there is however one great impediment to Cyrano declaring his love – the monstrosity of his exceptionally large nose. Being of an exceptionally poetic and sensitive nature, Cyrano is convinced that no one could love such a face and takes his frustrations out on the world around him. It helps that he just so happens to also be one of the finest swordsmen in France. However, after his “performance” at the theatre, Cyrano is astonished to hear that his beloved cousin desires a clandestine meeting with him the next day. In his elation he single-handedly takes on and defeats 100 armed soldiers sent out to cut down a fellow poet, one of whose songs have caused offence to a nobleman. Although still filled with doubts and disgust at his own appearance, Cyrano is nevertheless still shattered when he discovers the news that Roxane in not in love with him, but a young cadet recently transferred to his regiment, Christian de Neuvilette (Vincent Perez), who she believes to be handsome, intelligent and witty. Handsome yes, but in reality Christian is a dull-witted young soldier with no cultivation or finesse – but he is also deeply in love with Roxane. Rather than disappoint the woman he loves, Cyrano helps the young man court Roxane, writing letters and verses that come from his own heart, words that inspire in his cousin the love she dreams of – a love he believes she could never find with him.
Despite the considerable qualities of the cast and crew the principal reason for the success of Cyrano de Bergerac lies within the story itself. As I observed in my selection for the DVD Times Favourite Romance DVDs, Cyrano de Bergerac is simply the most romantic story ever told, being based on the classic ‘Beauty and the Beast’ template, where an ugly man is in love with a beautiful woman. The sensitivity of this beautiful soul hidden behind a tortured exterior becomes twisted into a deeply cynical outlook at an outside world that places so much importance on appearances. Despite his hatred of the world however, the man remains faithful to the ideal of an impossible and necessarily unrequited love. The fact that some of the greatest films ever made conform to this template to one degree or another - La Belle et La Bête obviously, but also King Kong and Casablanca - and the number of times that Cyrano de Bergerac itself has been filmed, I think supports this view of it being the perfect romance. The story was even brought up to date in a modern day retelling in Fred Schepisi’s 1987 film, Roxanne - a crude adaptation of the story starring Steve Martin as long-nosed fireman, C. D. Bales. The failure of that film, as far as I’m concerned, and the reason for the success of Rappeneau’s film (and King Kong and Casablanca), is that apart from the lack of credibility that Daryl Hannah would inspire such feelings, it fails to adhere to the essential tragedy of the unrequited love. The guy should not get the girl in the end. His love must remain pure and selfless, enduring eternal suffering and torment to ensure the happiness of his loved-one, even if it means remaining silent about his own feelings and taking them with him to the grave. What could be more romantic than that?
As if that isn’t enough, the story also contains so many other finer emotions and expressions of humanity, such as Cyrano’s belief in liberty and freedom of expression, a belief which he expressed as much in the pen as in the sword, being prepared to die for the right to compose a poem and in the process making a poem of his life. The film fully realises these lofty ambitions, in no small part down to the performance of Gérard Depardieu at the height of his game. Cyrano is a character who could easily be played with too much pathos and idealism, but here is made utterly human and convincing by Depardieu’s down-to-earth sincerity and sensitivity. The script also helps, with the words and verses that Cyrano writes through the conduit of Christian fully living up to their aim of surely making any woman swoon at the sentiments expressed not with wet slushiness, but with a deep, passionate and ardent desire. All this is supported by swashbuckling adventures, sharp wit, wartime heroics and romantic gallantry, brought to life fully through a number of fine secondary performances and the magnificent opulence of the period costume and set design.
Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac was previously released in the UK on DVD by Tartan in a very unsatisfactory edition. Second Sight’s new Region 0 UK edition is an improvement upon the earlier release in that it is at least anamorphic, but it comes with a whole other series of problems.
Second Sight’s new release of Cyrano de Bergerac is presented anamorphically at the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Colours are much warmer and more vivid than on previous editions, while marks and scratches are rare. The picture however does remain slightly grainy and the faint trace of fading down the right hand side of the picture is still there, but much less evident than on earlier DVD editions I have seen of the film. Often the image looks very clear and colourful, but unfortunately, it looks very artificially enhanced, with DVNR artefacts evident. This takes the form of a gauze-like appearance that is particularly noticeable in mist, in night-time scenes and in the smoke of the battle scenes. The single worst instance of it occurs during Cyrano’s meeting with Roxane at the bakery, when the grain in the foliage behind Roxane jumps around like a swarm of flies. See image below.
Additionally, and judging by the running time, the picture seems to be transferred to PAL from an NTSC source. This gives the image a jerkiness of 3:2 pulldown, particularly evident in camera pans, though any movement causes blurring and combing.
The only edition I currently have to compare this to is the Australian Region 0 edition from Umbrella Entertainment (which with PAL speed-up runs to 132 minutes). This looks very much like the old Tartan edition. Dull, faded, grainy and non-anamorphic with fixed subtitles, it is one of the worst DVD transfers I have seen of a film. Although the Second Sight edition is not quite as bad as that edition, in some respects it is worse, particularly in its rendering of dark or day-for-night scenes, with blacks looking dull, lacking in detail and showing some murkiness. An image from the Second Sight edition (top) is presented in comparison with the not particularly great Australian Umbrella Entertainment edition (bottom).
For the most part however, the image on the Second Sight DVD at least gives the appearance of clarity, colour and warmth, and may be passable for most people. Any close examination of the transfer however will reveal its considerable technical deficiencies.
The soundtrack is now presented only as Dolby Digital 5.1, with no choice for the original Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. This doesn’t present too much of a problem as the rear speaker and subwoofer are used rarely if at all. Additionally, the sound quality is marvellous, carrying Petit’s sweepingly romantic and majestic score along. There is fine clarity and tone, with spacious separation and no sign of noise reduction or dampening of the dialogue or effects.
English subtitles are clear and readable and in Anthony Burgess’ translation they do a wonderful job of retaining the tone and flow of the original verse. They cannot be removed, but neither are they burnt into the print or fixed into the transfer – i.e. they disappear if you play the film in fast-forward. Some players consequently may be able to switch these subtitles off.
Jean-Paul Rappeneau discusses the 1923 version (8:18)
The director discusses the Augusto Genina’s 1923 silent version of Cyrano de Bergerac as an influence for how to approach the film with more emphasis on the flow and movement suggested by the verse rather than its excessive verbiage. A number of fabulous clips from this version (colourised) are shown here.
Interview with Gérard Depardieu (11:05)
Depardieu, speaking in English, talks about his involvement with the film, his reasons for playing the character and the collaborative process with the filmmakers and other actors.
Interview with Jean-Claude Carrière (16:29)
In a recent interview, Carrière discusses the history and background of Rostand and Cyrano de Bergerac and how they adapted the play, keeping the musicality but losing the theatricality of the original text. He talks about Depardieu’s essential involvement in the project and how they overcame some technical difficulties in adapting the play to the screen – going so far as to obtain from a museum a particular type of long-stemmed wheat seed that would have been common in the 17th century, and planting a field a year in advance of filming.
In summary then, Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac is nothing short of a masterpiece, the acme of traditional filmmaking in its visual and narrative storytelling ability and also in its making a connection with the willing viewer by presenting them the illusion of the perfect romance. The idea that any element of the film could be improved upon - from the performances, to the script to the score – is inconceivable. This beautiful looking film has long been due a decent DVD release and although on a cursory examination the Second Sight DVD appears to meet those requirements, it is technically a very poor edition that only the strength of the film itself and its visual splendour makes passable.