Gerard Depardieu brings his considerable girth and flamboyance to Jean-Paul Rappeneau's burly adaptation of "Cyrano de Bergerac," a swashbuckling burlesque of negative self-image, cowardice and compromise. Though he doesn't really need it, Depardieu is equipped with a prosthetic proboscis, a palpable trunk that inspires both shame and swagger in France's enduring hero. But unlike poor Cyrano, Depardieu wears the nose, the nose does not wear him.
First performed in Paris in 1897, Edmond Rostand's romantic tragicomedy has been spruced up by Rappeneau and Jean-Claude Carriere, who dismantled, analyzed and reconstructed each act while leaving Rostand's witty verse intact. An aggressively active interpretation of the antique work, it demands as much sword- as wordplay.
Rather ungainly in his plumed hat and musketeer's cape, Depardieu is still adept at lending pride and pain to this formal poesy. He pins his opponents with his sword, but it is his words that wound. With his grotesque nose, he has taken refuge in his eloquence, hiding his ugliness behind his wit. Yet another beast, he would complete himself with beauty, and so he adores the exquisite but immature Roxane (Anne Brochet).
Roxane, his cousin, comes to him one day to tell him of her love for the handsome Christian de Neuvillette (Vincent Perez), a new cadet in Cyrano's Gascony Guard. Christian is as numb-tongued as he is comely -- and inarticulate suitors are definitely not one of Roxane's turn-ons. Seeing a chance at least to express his love out loud, Cyrano agrees to pen all of Christian's love letters, even to speak for him during the balcony scene. Cyrano stands below, a trembling gallant, as Christian climbs up to take the kiss he has wooed and won.
The terrible tragedy comes when Cyrano realizes he might have won Roxane, who has fallen in love with the soul behind the alexandrines. Time passes, Christian dies and Roxane, who has lived in a nunnery since his death, realizes that she has been mourning the wrong man these many years. And Cyrano in the end repents the error of his ways.
The moral may be uniquely French, but the story remains a universal treasure. One of the nation's most expensive productions ever, it is fairly jostling with musket-armed extras and details of the 17th century, in which the story takes place. There's a Dickensian look to the movie, so shadowed and dark it's as if Rappeneau didn't really want us to get a good glimpse of the storied nose. But as Roxane, the French ingenue Brochet brings light and grace to the proceedings.
"Cyrano de Bergerac" is played full tilt, like Don Quixote against the windmills. An enthusiastic melodrama, it spills emotions like stars across the noble screen. Think what would have been lost to art had Cyrano gotten a nose job. Which his agent would today insist upon.
Cyrano de Bergerac, at the Key, is in French with English subtitles and is rated PG.