The most astounding thing about Cyrano is not that this film, based on a French comedy from the 1890s, begins with Peter Dinklage performing a sword-fighting rap battle. It’s that this is, in fact, how the original play began.
The original play introduces Cyrano as a large-nosed, charismatic, obnoxious, lovable, bombastic poet who declares his genius in clever verse while insulting his enemies. At one boorish rival, he playfully offers a rhyming speech that translates something like: “Huge, my nose! Vile shrimp, stupid pug, flat head, suppose / that this appendage is a point of pride.” He’s fun, a little mean, bold, and under it all woefully insecure.
This new film blends modern with antique throughout — our heroes wear stockings and powdered wigs, ride horse-drawn carriages, and fire muskets; but they also break into folk-poppy ballads, speak with modern American accents, and their speech is peppered with words like gonna and ‘cause.
But is this half-modernized adaptation effective? Well, it’s certainly strange and memorable, but I found myself wondering over and over: “why on EARTH is this a musical?” … until one scene made the answer clear.
You probably know the premise: A proud poetic soldier named Cyrano secretly loves his old friend Roxane, but because he is considered deformed, is too proud to declare his love for fear of rejection. When an inarticulate fellow soldier named Christian expresses affection for the same woman, and Roxane indicates that the feeling is mutual, Cyrano offers to ghost-write love letters on Christian's behalf. Then, like any number of sitcom-mixups, Roxane falls for Christian’s pretty face and words, not realizing that she has been duped by the two men who love her. What a misunderstanding!
I don’t normally ask why a show is a musical, because most of them make it clear. There’s some spectacle to the talent of the performers, of the song and the dance, of the way that music augments the emotion. Nobody hears Judy Garland sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow and asks, “Lady, what’s with all the notes?”
But that’s exactly what I found myself wondering with Cyrano, especially since the story is so tidy and Peter Dinklage’s acting is such a marvel. He really is an incredible performer — tight knots of emotion coil across his face throughout the film, and the wisely-frequent use of close-ups allow us to see the rich interior struggle of his character. Cyrano’s charisma and charm are absolute. For a character whose power is supposedly in his words, the surprising superpower of this performance is how Dinklage conveys the unsaid.
And then he has to go and sing. Why? What does this add? Especially since, like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, he opts to talk his way through the melodies. I was reminded of Hugh Jackman staccato-reciting his way through Les Mis like a woodpecker, only with Russell Crowe’s attention to pitch. The lyrics sometimes feel like a first draft: The adaptation of Cyrano's introductory speech includes, "Whichever way I look at you, can't find a tasteful side / A specimen like you belongs in formaldehyde." Make sure you stretch before reaching for that rhyme.
Some of the songs break through the melodrama into accidental comedy, and I’ll confess I laughed out loud when the rapping began — though that was with delighted disbelief, not derision. There’s an erotic letter-writing montage in which it is suggested that Roxane is engaging in a physical act of love with a piece of paper, after which she walks through a billowing lace curtain like she’s about to sing Total Eclipse of the Heart. Director Joe Wright began his career in music videos, and I appreciate his big swings for the fences, even when they result in jaw-dropping ideas like the moment in his film Pan when the pirates sing Smells Like Teen Spirit. (Oh, hey there, Mr. Jackman.)
The moments in Cyrano in which the music finally makes sense are in the famous balcony scene and in the letter-writing montage. In the balcony scene, both Cyrano and Christian hide in the shadows beneath Roxane’s home; Christian presents himself in a murky spotlight, but Cyrano supplies the romantic words.
Their performances for Roxane blend, then mix with Roxane’s declarations of love, and for a few minutes here and there we actually have a musical on our hands. Cyrano is a love story about voice — the voices we use, the ones we hide, the ones we use when alone, the ones we wrongly think no one else can hear. Merging the voices of three lovers into harmonious words that have discordant meanings is a brilliant use of song.
The second-best scene in the film takes place in a military camp, where soldiers sing mournfully about their impending deaths. The setting is appropriate, since “camp” is how I’d describe most of the film. I had a wonderful time.
Cyrano premieres in Portland at Cinema 21 and other theaters on February 24.