If there’s one French play Americans have heard of, it’s probably Cyrano de Bergerac, which not only enjoys a secure spot on school reading lists, but has also been adapted numerous times. Best known among these is Fred Schepisi’s Roxanne (1987), starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah, but there are also two Oscar-winning adaptations of the play (the 1950 Hollywood version starred Jose Ferrer, the 1990 French version Gérard Depardieu). And many more films have also drawn on the basic outlines of Edmond Rostand’s play, including Love Letters (1945), Electric Dreams (1984), The Ugly Truth (2009), and Let It Shine (2012).
Given that track record, it was a logical move for playwright Alexis Michalik to pen a new play (Edmond) which incorporates the basic conceit of Cyrano into the story of how the play came to be written. It was equally logical to adapt that play into the film released in the United States as Cyrano, My Love, because why argue with success? The result is a beautifully produced piece of arthouse cinema, which retains the best qualities of the original play while also meeting the expectations of movie-goers. Cyrano has been skillfully “opened up,” in other words, while still remaining true to its theatrical origins.
When we first meet Edmund Rostand (Thomas Solvérès) in 1897 Paris, he’s a none-too-successful playwright whose old-fashioned style—he insists on writing formal verse plays when what everyone seems to want is either farce in the manner of Feydeau (Michalik) or realism in the manner of Ibsen—puts him on the wrong side of public taste. And that’s the thing about the theatre—your play has to sell tickets now, not sit on shelves for years to be later discovered as an overlooked classic. Rostand knows this fact of life only too well, as his last play, despite starring the legendary Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié), quickly closed.
Rostand hasn’t written anything since, so household finances are tight, something which clearly worries his wife (Alice de Lencquesaing). She’s supportive of her husband’s literary ambitions, but also aware that it takes money to live, particularly when you have two young children to raise. In fact, it’s not clear how they can afford their spacious, well-appointed flat, but probably the same way that schoolteachers in New York City-set television programs can afford apartments overlooking Central Park.
You need a strong tolerance for the magic of the theatre to enjoy what happens next. Through a highly improbable sequence of events, Rostand finds himself committed to writing a play starring a well-known actor, Coquelin (Olivier Gourmet), and Rostand’s handsome best friend Leo (Tom Leeb). The source material: the life of the 17th century author and noted duelist Cyrano de Bergerac. Inspiration for this new work comes in no small part from Rostand’s attraction to Leo’s girlfriend Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), a theatrical costumer. Yes, Cyrano, My Love draws from the same well as Shakespeare in Love, but people seemed to like that movie well enough, so why not?
Michalik, who also adapted Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into R & J, is an experienced writer for the stage as well as television and the movies, and his love of theatrical production shines through in Cyrano, My Love. So does his skill in writing dialogue that is truly heightened speech—the characters speak more eloquently than people do in real life, because we’re being asked to pay particular attention to the words they are speaking. The cast is more than up to the task, particularly Jean-Michel Martial as the innkeeper Monsieur Honoré. There’s plenty of backstage action and well-known character types in Cyrano as well, including two shady-looking Corsican backers (Simon Abkarian and Marc Andréoni), and a pair of monumentally unqualified actors (Mathilde Seigner and Igor Gotesman) who, let us say, did not get their parts based on their thespian talents.
Nothing will surprise you in Cyrano, My Love, which unspools like clockwork. It’s so well done, however, that it’s still enjoyable to watch. Besides the accomplished actors, the production design by Franck Schwarz, costume design by Thierry Delettre, set decoration by Hélène Maroutian, and art direction by Gilles Iscan and Franck Schwarz are particular delights, as is the cinematography by Giovanno Fiore Contellacci. Paris in Cyrano is prettier than any real city has a right to be, probably because the film was shot primarily in the Czech Republic, but that approach to filmmaking meshes perfectly with the theatrical nature of the dialogue and plotting—this film isn’t attempting to mimic reality, it’s giving you a better version of it. | Sarah Boslaugh