TORONTO -- Jumping up to greet a visitor in the plush but sterile hotel room common to film festivals the world over, Jean-Paul Rappeneau was clearly in an expansive mood. His new film, "Cyrano de Bergerac," which stars Gerard Depardieu and which, at $20 million, is the most expensive production in the history of French cinema, had just had its first screening before an English-speaking audience, here in September at the Toronto Festival of Festivals. Rappeneau, 58, a journeyman filmmaker for the past three decades whose work is little known outside of France, had risked the last five years of his life on "Cyrano," and much was at stake. Fortunately, the audience loved the film, and a week later it would be awarded the prize for most popular film of the festival.

Rappeneau's apprehension was understandable. The film -- which opened in Washington last week -- has a lot going for it, including the mercurial Depardieu (who won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance), a deeply romantic yet authentically moving story, the lush sets, powerful score and swirling cinematography of a long-lost opulent tradition of filmmaking, and a cast of (literally) thousands. But, most improbably, it's in verse. Worse yet, it's in alexandrines, or rhymed iambic hexameter, the stuff of French heroic poetry. "The fact of the verse was what scared me the most," Rappeneau admitted. "But, little by little, I realized that that's precisely what made the film original. It's a kind of spoken opera. For me the words form a kind of music, a music that runs alongside the images."

The director was speaking in French and, unsurprisingly, on his lips the language is elegant and measured. Like the film's dialogue, it seems to take a sometimes quiet, sometimes robust pleasure in its own rhythms. His blazer and slacks were equally elegant; like the other European directors at the festival, his sartorial care made him stand out amid the militantly casual garb affected by the majority of film people who had flown up from Los Angeles.

The additional problem for American audiences of "Cyrano," of course, is that the verse is in French, and the great, unspoken fear is that the film will flop in the United States because will be overwhelmed by the onslaught of poetic subtitles. Helping things considerably is the fact that the subtitles are by that protean British man of letters, Anthony Burgess, who adapted them from the translation he had done some 10 years ago for the Royal Shakespeare Company's production starring Derek Jacoby. "It would have been a disaster with normal subtitles," said Rappeneau. But something was inevitably lost in translation as well. "The subtitles had to be real short, and we had a hard time shortening them. The first few samples Burgess sent us were so long that a special screen, on the side of the regular screen, would have had to be built to hold them all."

It is perhaps not too far-fetched to see "Cyrano" as part of a nascent cinematic movement back to the pleasures of the Word. After all, Tom Stoppard has recently adapted his "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" after 25 years, Stephen Frears's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan" work primarily through the delight they take in their own language, and Hollywood scriptwriters are beginning to command unheard-of fees in the $3 million range. After the visual saturation bombing visited upon us by MTV and hundreds of films trying to look like MTV, there seems to be a new respect for language as a conveyance of subtlety and emotional nuance, and as a source of pleasure in its own right.

Rappeneau agrees. "I think that's right, because the young generation vaguely knew the play as having something to do with a nose, and now in the lyce'e -- I know this, because my children are in the lyce'e -- the kids are joking by talking in alexandrines. It seems that it's real easy to say, 'O, cher ami, ouvre-moi la porte, dadum, dadum, dadum.' " Is it stretching too much to include rap music in this return to the Word? When his publicist meekly pointed out the connection with his name, the director, delighted, shouted in English, "Rapp-eneau, the famous French rapper!"

"The success of the film in France has really led to a kind of rehabilitation of the French language," he somewhat immodestly continued. "In France, just as everywhere else, people don't know how to speak anymore, they just sort of croak. My co-screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carriere, told me that when the film came out, he took a bunch of young people to see it, and they were all so struck by the language that no one dared to speak for more than an hour afterward. Compared to the language of the film, their own language just seemed so impoverished."

"Cyrano's" path to the screen was not a smooth one. Five years ago, Rappeneau was approached by producers Rene Cleitman and Michel Seydoux when the rights to the play fell into the public domain. They had been impressed with his 1971 film "Les Maries de l'an deux," with Jean-Paul Belmondo, which was set in roughly the same period as "Cyrano." Theater groups put the play on the very day after the rights became available, and the producers noticed the usual uncanny "Cyrano" syndrome -- that it was, as always, improbably but wildly successful.

Rappeneau hadn't seen the play since he was 8 years old, yet, he said, "I was transported as I had been as a child, when I was learning lines by heart and Cyrano was my hero. But I also said to myself that it was impossible -- this fin de sie`cle pastry, full of whipped cream, and the way {Edmond} Rostand had of torturing words. And I also saw a lot of dust. In spite of all that, by the time the play was over, after the famous last act, I was so moved that I decided to go ahead." Early on, Carriere, probably France's best-known screenwriter, was brought into the project. Unfortunately, once the adaptation was finished, the producers realized how incredibly expensive the film would be, and the whole thing was abandoned for several years. Eventually the necessary financial backing was put together, including $2.2 million from the French Ministry of Culture, and shooting began in 1989.

Rappeneau says it was not all that difficult to adapt the play to the screen. "In Rostand's story itself there was, for me, the whole scenario of a film. He wrote the play in 1896, the same year that the cinema was invented. It's as though without knowing it, while he was writing the play, he was writing a scenario for a film of it at the same time. He was always looking for the right images through his choice of words, great piles of words, and words alone, so it wasn't really all that difficult to write a script based on it."

On the whole, Rappeneau and Carriere have been respectful of the play in adapting it, but not worshipful. "We found some marvelous things, really great poetry, in fact, maybe a little naive, but truly beautiful. Other things were really not very good at all -- they were facile, almost vulgar. I was afraid of changing anything, because I was worried about what the purists would say. Then when Carriere joined me -- he had already done a lot of adaptations of Shakespeare, and so on -- well, he doesn't have any complexes about any text, even Shakespeare's. From the first day, I would say, 'Well, I don't know about this, or about this,' and he would shout, 'Let's throw it out! Throw it out! You can't keep something you don't like!' And so he helped me get rid of my complexes, giving me the courage I needed. Some of the reviews in France said that in a sense, we had done a favor to Rostand, sort of giving the play back a certain rhythm and grace that it no longer had."

Later, when Rappeneau read Burgess's translation, he realized that Burgess had done the same thing. "He had even done things that I wouldn't have dared to do. In both the play and film, for example, when Cyrano goes off to war, Roxane follows him. Burgess decided, however, that it was absolutely impossible and unrealistic for a woman to go off to war like that, and so he simply took it out. I had her disguised as a man, to make it a little more realistic, but I wouldn't have dared to take it all out." Since new scenes were necessary to bridge the gaps in the adaptation, Carriere had to make up some new verse as well, but he stuck scrupulously to words that Rostand had used elsewhere in the play.

In addition to its language, the film is also remarkable for the surprisingly somber look that Rappeneau and his director of photography, Pierre Lhomme, have achieved. "Personally, I think that most of the time we see too much in a film," Rappeneau said. "Cinema keeps its mystery when you have to guess things, rather than see everything, especially films in color. At the same time, it's true that in the 18th century, it was really dark at night, you could hardly see anything, and there are a lot more scenes in the play that take place at night than during the day. And it seemed to fit the subject, because it's also the story of the nose. I was horrified when I saw Steve Martin's film 'Roxanne'! Everything was done in full sunlight, so you could always see this grotesque nose. That's when I decided not to show the nose very much, and that's another reason why we purposely made the film dark."

Nor was this muted look easy to produce. "For example, the whole scene at the end in the convent, when Cyrano is going to die, we had to shoot that in the middle of a bright, incredibly hot day. It was difficult for the cinematographer because he had to disguise the sun with filters, translucent canvas and so on. It was so hot that the entire crew was wearing bathing suits. So we filmed this moving nocturnal scene, with the actors in the dark, but behind the camera it looked like Miami Beach."

To Rappeneau, the story of the man with the long nose who woos his beloved Roxane for another "is the story of a man who carries a secret wound, who becomes the wound itself. He closes himself up in loneliness, declaring that people are incapable of loving him. For me, it's the story of a masochist. He constructs his unhappiness scientifically all throughout this life. But what is so touching about him is that he does it with panache. Panache signifies something that is elegant but absolutely useless. Near the end Cyrano says, 'Something is even more beautiful when it's useless,' and that seems perfect to me."

And Depardieu, who at 41 has already made more than 60 films, carries off the role with a panache of his own. When Rappeneau speaks of him, he becomes thoughtful, slightly shaking his head, as though, more than a year later, he is still stunned by the actor's raw force. "As an actor, Depardieu is instinctual above all. He's not somebody who likes to prepare for a long time beforehand, to think about the role for months. It's the filming itself that gets him going. He prefers to be in danger. He has a kind of animal reaction to what's going on."

Given the nature of the material, the last thing Rappeneau had to worry about was Depardieu running out of control. "The role of Cyrano is so strong, and Gerard was so completely taken by the text, that he really didn't have 50 different ways of doing it. So in that framework, I gave him a lot of freedom. The frame was so rigid -- the script, the character, the verse -- that I didn't need to tighten it any further. So I let him alone, sort of like an animal in a cage, in the middle of all that."

Peter Brunette teaches film and literature at George Mason University. He is the author of "Roberto Rossellini" (Oxford) and co-author of "Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory" (Princeton).