Thursday, March 10, 2022

Cyrano (2021)

The Longing and the Short of It
The Wright Stuff
Cyrano is a movie I've been wanting to watch for awhile—it did come out in 2021, after all, but it's release, outside of the two major American markets and the Festival circuit, was delayed until 2022—and what attracted me to it was 1) Peter Dinklage, and 2) Joe Wright directed it, and 3) they're not depending on "the nose" thing, which I always found to be...let's say "problematic" when what I really mean is anti-Semitic. French origins and all-that. One suspects coded language going on for the character's "ugly man" persona and why a beautiful Parisienne might refuse to marry him. Reading about the REAL Cyrano de Bergerac only complicates things and brings up what might have been issues in the man's life that original author Edmond Rostand glossed over to create a traditional romance.
The film started as a 2018 stage production of the classic play, adapted and directed by Dinklage's wife, Erica Schmidt with songs by "The National". The production moved to Off-Broadway in 2019, and Wright attached himself to direct in the stylized, theatrical proscenium style which has been customary for him when dealing with well-worn period subjects like his Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and Pan.
It's well-worn enough that you probably already know the story: Roxanne (
Haley Bennett) is a beautiful, eligible woman being pursued by many suitors, all of whom are rich and practical choices (like the Duke De Guiche—played by Ben Mendelsohn, who really needs to get himself out of his villain-rut), but she wants love, the kind of love that inspires her heart and inflames her loins. She falls instantly in love with soldier Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) while at a theater performance during which Cyrano (Dinklage) offends and upstages a foppish stage-thumper. Roxanne and Cyrano are childhood friends, which has blossomed into his unrequited reverence for her. She confesses her love for Christian to him, and he is heart-broken, but upon meeting Christian he finds enough of value in him, that he serves as the young man's mouthpiece in his pursuit of Roxanne. Christian has the looks and the dash, but Cyrano has the lover's soul encased in a less-than-love-inspiring frame. He is doubly cursed watching his heart's desire falling for another man (using his own inspiration).
And that's the dynamic—superficial-love versus unanswered desire. Roxanne only sees the surface of Christian and not the depths of Cyrano (so, is she worth his devotion?). Both paramours find themselves inadequate and punish themselves for their failings (Cyrano that he's not handsome and Christian that he is not eloquent), but, at the least, Christian has a pleasing veneer that gives him the edge in her affections, even if she swoons at Cyrano's words. Yet, Cyrano is never open about his affections, deceiving Roxanne that she can "have it all" even though, at her first meeting with Christian, she finds him lacking in the words and emotions she has come to depend on. Cyrano isn't handsome. Christian isn't eloquent. Roxanne is shallow. Talk about a twisted triangle. M.C. Escher might have been her perfect man.
This isn't a romance, it's a tragedy. And, as with "Hamlet"—or (Disney...) "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", putting it to music would seem perverse. But, songs are inserted—Roxanne has the de rigeur "I want" song right off the bat. And while they're not terrible, they're not sweepingly romantic, either—the Dessner's, Berninger and Besser's are no Cyrano's. The best of them, "Wherever I Fall," concerns the last thoughts of soldiers at war. And for all the choreographed dancing and prancing, there is nothing useful added to a story of three imperfect people looking for the perfect.
It's the acting that sells it. Bennett makes Roxanne an object of desire, despite her flaws and sells the vacuity of the character as having a spine in a world where women are assumed to depend on the considerable undercarriage of their garments to have them. Dinklage, of course, is the star-player here. He's played very few romantic leads—The Station Agent?—and has usually underplayed things to the point of stoicism. There's a bit of that here—when Cyrano is sure he's doing the right thing but not wallowing in self-pity. But, the rest of the time, Dinklage wears his heart on his short sleeve—the face crumples, the eyes squint in pain even as a brave smile erupts across his face. Cyrano may suffer in silence but his face does all the talking, thanks to Dinklage. It's a wonder no one tumbles to his secret, as it's as plain...(no, "as the nose on his face" doesn't apply)'s obviously apparent given Dinklage's face in turmoil.
Wright's direction and location work (in Sicily) is masterful, throwing in lovely sub-texts in images that the story doesn't imply, bringing sensuality to Roxanne's cloistered world, or the bleakness of the battlefield, turning the location vaults and bridges into proscenium arches and making all the city seem a stage. At the same time—as in Richard Lester's Rome in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—Wright's France seems realistic in squalor, overrun by cats, open-air markets properly fetid, and a sense of crumbling dirt everywhere. It makes the scenario go down a little easier when things feel so rough to the touch. In fact, one can say that Wright's direction and sense of the story is as good as it could possibly be. The best presentation, even if the result is a tad mediocre.
File it under "Disappointing Romance"; "Love is a form of Insanity" sub-section.

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