Edmond Rostand gets “Shakespeare in Love” treatment in “Cyrano, My Love,” Alexis Michalik’s strenuously cheekily reimaging of the birthing of his most famous play, but the result is a somewhat soggy French soufflé, still edible but hardly delectable.
In Michalik’s highly fanciful retelling, Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) is introduced as a failed verse playwright desperate for success, his financial distress a matter of concern to his supportive wife Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing). Fortunately he has a friend in renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié), who recommends him to equally flamboyant actor Constant Coquelin (Olivier Gourmet), an impresario always looking for new material to star in (and backers to provide production costs).
Rostand is pleased to have a chance at recouping his reputation, which is increasingly dim in comparison to that of Georges Feydeau (Michalik), but he’s flummoxed for a plot. Fortunately Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), a sophisticated bar owner, is on hand to recommend the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, the seventeenth-century poet and swordsman, as a subject. (In reality Rostand had wanted to write a play about Cyrano for some time, but so what?) Coquelin is taken with the basic idea, but needs a finished work quickly—to premiere before year’s end.
Fortunately Rostand’s imagination is piqued into action by his friend Léonidas (Tom Leeb), a handsome actor who’s fallen for the beautiful costume designer Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah) but is tongue-tied in her presence. Rostand impulsively offers a few lines for him to say to her—in what’s presented as a sort of audition for the play’s balcony scene—and gets the notion of the noble man with the bulbous nose feeding dialogue to a man who is in fact his romantic rival—since he too loves the maiden called Roxane. In an example of life imitating art (or is it the reverse?), Rostand becomes enamored of Jeanne—but as a muse, not a lover, though Rosemonde comes to suspect differently. (Mistaken identity also comes into play.)
The comedy of the script derives from the harried writing of the play, with poor Edmond grabbing ideas from chance occurrences and bits of conversation he encounters as he goes (as well as Coquelin’s insistence that he have a sword-fight scene)—at one point he even takes inspiration from a meeting with Anton Chekhov (Micha Lescot) in a brothel (where both are just innocently waiting for friends who are customers, it should be noted)—while Coquelin must overcome a string of problems to stage the ever-changing piece. Among the complications are the egotism of Maria Legault (Mathilde Seigner), the diva enlisted to play Roxane at the insistence of intrusive backers (Marc Andréoni and Simon Abkarian), and Coquelin’s expectation that the cast will include his son Jean (Igor Gotesman) despite the fact that the bulky young man seems unable to learn lines—or speak them intelligibly when he does.
Of course, the premiere becomes a near-catastrophe, with government bureaucrats intervening to prevent the show from going on, money-men demanding the return of their funds, and Jeanne having to step in for an injured Maria. The result is frequent chaos on stage, presided over by harried manager Lucien (Dominique Pinon), which the audience apparently doesn’t notice at all, according the play its historic rapturous approval.
Michalik’s movie will work best for viewers who know “Cyrano” fairly well, since apart from the occasional quotation and a few brief scenes shown as part of the premiere performance, there’s not much of it found here. Unfortunately, “Cyrano de Bergerac” may be familiar to most viewers, especially in America, not from any of the films made of it (the best-known being Michael Gordon’s 1950 adaptation, which earned Jose Ferrer an Oscar, and Jean-Paul Rappenau’s 1990 version with Gérard Depardieu), but from Steve Martin’s 1987 updating, “Roxanne.” Many will have to take the genius of the work more on faith than on the evidence provided here.
Anyone willing to do that, however, will find things to enjoy in “Cyrano, My Love.” The production design by Franck Schwartz, costumes by Thierry Delettre and cinematography by Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci contribute to absolutely luscious visuals. And while much of the cast—Solivérès, Leeb, Boujenah, Lencquesaing—is merely adequate, it’s difficult to resist the pleasure provided by Gourmet’s extravagance, and, on a lesser level, that of Seigner and Pinon. Their exuberance goes a long way in holding our interest, even if the editing by Anny Danché and Marie Silvi, and the score by Romain Trouillet—along with Michalik’s hectoring direction—keep nudging us in the ribs about how funny the farce is.
Harvey Weinstein was able to push “Shakespeare in Love” into the Oscar winning circle against “Saving Private Ryan”—still one of the most shocking upsets in Academy history. One can be certain that “Cyrano, My Love” whatever its charms, won’t be winning any prizes in next spring’s ceremony. But though a bit flimsy and pushy, it’s an agreeable enough confection.