It is the seventeenth century, and France is at war with Spain, but in Paris, one of the soldiers is also at war with himself, not to mention anyone who points out his most prominent feature. At a theatre in the heart of the city, his most hated actor will take the stage, but many of those in attendance are there to see if Cyrano de Bergerac (Gérard Depardieu) will show up as well, for he has been so offended by this thespian that he has vowed to sabotage his next performance should he deign to act again. True to form, they both appear, but Cyrano will have more to worry about as his big mouth has made him enemies in high places, quite often because of that feature - his big nose.
The joke about this multi-Cesar-winning adaptation of the classic Edmond Rostand play was that Depardieu was ideal for the lead since they wouldn't have to spend money on a prosthetic nose, but that dig aside there was nothing but praise for the star when he took what should have been his defining role. Certainly it was defining for him, he loved being Cyrano and "took the part home with him", so to speak, convinced he and director Jean-Paul Rappeneau had improved on the source by tightening it up and bringing it up to date while staying faithful to the era that it was written in and about. Yet over the years, what was lauded as an instant classic in 1990 saw its star fall somewhat.
Maybe Depardieu himself was the issue, as the decades progressed he failed to match this apex performance in his career; he loved to work, but the idea he had spread himself too thin, and this was the only thin thing about him, took hold in the public consciousness with every year going by and around ten new films from him appearing (not much of an exaggeration). On the subject of that, his public persona also took a knock as he hit the headlines for increasingly erratic behaviour, renouncing France for Russia and other places when the taxes he was asked to pay grew too much for him to tolerate, and other news items both absurd and more serious dogged his career.
Therefore going back to his Cyrano came with a lot of baggage that was not there when he made such an impact in 1990, even nominated for an Oscar. You can look at his stylings here and see there was a lot he never let go of, and if that has not cheapened his work as the swashbuckling warrior poet in itself, it does have you lamenting what he became in subsequent efforts, and you cannot help but allow that to colour your perception. And yet, it was such terrific casting that after a while spent with a fairly lengthy picture you begin to lose that accumulation of what a pantomime Depardieu became in life and fiction, and appreciate what a beautifully judged reading of the male psyche it was.
For Cyrano, he is as brave as brave can be when it comes to a fight, to setting his words down on the page, but he is a dreadful coward when it comes to love. His love for Roxane (Anne Brochet) is his Achilles heel - she is his cousin in the story, though you imagine that must be at many degrees removed since they resemble one another not a jot - but it could have been his supreme strength if he had only gotten over himself and simply admitted his affection. Yet he feels inadequate because of his huge nose, and that is emblematic of his lack of confidence that he would ever be capable, or deserving, of love, so he gets mixed up in a hare-brained scheme with the handsome but not as inspired Christian (Vincent Perez, making a lot out of a potentially thankless role) where he writes his poetry to Roxane under Christian's name.
She is delighted that he would contain the heart of a great artist under that smouldering exterior, not realising it's the physically lumpen, emotionally deep Cyrano who should be her true love. Depardieu made him dashing enough to clearly be worthy of her, and funnily enough the script made the traditionally banal Roxane brave and compassionate, therefore worthy of him, except she never finds out until it is too late. France's most expensive film ever to that date, Rappeneau's version of Cyrano was not the prettified prestige movie you might anticipate, his seventeenth century looks lived in and the war scenes in the latter half were convincingly harrowing for the participants as not only do the French troops have death by cannon fire to contend with, but are starving into the unwelcome bargain. This richly evocative atmosphere that could have opted for the chocolate box instead delivered on a historical milieu not going for the obvious, and you could say the same for the treatment of Rostand as well. For that reason, and to enjoy Depardieu when he was truly at the top of his game, Cyrano de Bergerac should be better remembered. Music by Kurt Kuenne and Jean-Claude Petit.
[The BFI Blu-ray release has the following features:
Full-length feature commentary by Ginette Vincendeau: the Kings College London professor on the film and its art-historical context
Interview with Gérard Depardieu (12 mins): the actor recalls making Cyrano de Bergerac
Interview with Jean-Paul Rappeneau (8 mins): the director discusses the influence of the 1923 version
Anthony Burgess with AS Byatt (1987, 58 mins): Burgess discusses his views on language and the arts with author and critic AS Byatt
Gérard Depardieu in Conversation (1987, 76 mins, audio only): the Cyrano de Bergerac star discusses his life and work, recorded on stage at the NFT
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by Martin Hall.]