It’s interesting and ironic that Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac should have become a standard classic, since at the time of its creation it was viewed as pretty populist entertainment—certainly nothing like the “naturalist” theatre that was considered important at the time. For some considerable time, this remained true. But as is so often the case, the passage of time turned Rostand’s tragi-comic romp into something more serious—the kind of thing one is forced to read in school. By the time Jose Ferrer made his Oscar-winning bow with a film version of it in 1950, there was a whiff of the purely academic about it. The story had become culture.
The great thing about Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s 1990 film—apart from Gerard Depardieu’s central performance—is that it returns the play to its popular entertainment self. It’s richly vulgar, comic, full of roughhouse hi-jinks and in so doing makes the tragi half of tragi-comedy all the more tragic. Beautifully designed, solidly directed and adapted, it’s simply a wonderful film. Even the subtitles for the English-language release by novelist Anthony Burgess (a writer one needs a handy dictionary to read) are a thing of delight. It all conspires to perform the central feat of making you forget you’re watching a “classic.” And that is also the secret of Depardieu’s Cyrano—he makes you forget he’s decked out in the preposterous proboscis that blights our hero’s life (yes, it helps that Depardieu’s own nose is pretty ample). With Depardieu you see Cyrano the romantic first. The nose is secondary. And that’s as it should be.