The first twenty-five minutes or so of Michael Gordon's Cyrano de Bergerac, essentially Act I of an embellished biographical play about the 17th-Century nasally-challenged warrior poet, can be about as impeccably crafted and rivetingly charismatic as one can envision from a faithful adaptation. Confidence overflows from Cyrano as he interrupts a terrible, hackneyed performance in a quaint theater; Josť Ferrer's thick voice towers over that of a performer, the poet-playwright's arrogance forcing him off the stage. And after his grand display, under the gaze of the audience now well-compensated for their ruined evening and after proclaiming his pride about his lengthy facial appendage, he deflects the insults of a snobbish, overly-secure swordsman by doing what humans have been told to do with bullies for ages now: laugh, and make fun of yourself. The whirlwind of insults he concoct about his flaw are mesmerizing, doing nothing but revealing his superior intellect and self-assurance over his imperfection -- or, as he so eloquently interjects, his superior visage.
Josť Ferrer's voice instantly strikes a chord as Cyrano, different from the sinuous half-confidence of the nobles and schemers that surround him in the playhouse. His poise suggests a weathered, secure individual whose way with words and a blade have made him a formidable foe, someone whom the people fear insulting. And we see why: once the snooty swordsman pushes Cyrano's buttons, the two duel in grand style in the theater among an audience, one that includes the poet's beloved cousin, Roxane (Mala Powers). Director Gordon allows this fencing duel to maneuver in all manner of ways through the theater, scuttling to the very center stage itself as Cyrano boldly parries and maneuvers around his aggressor, all while reciting an eloquent, searing poem. The duel is vigorous; it's clear that plenty of premeditation went into making it as aggressive as some of the best swashbuckling movies of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, elegantly photographed by Franz Planer. That first act brilliantly emboldens the reason for Cyrano's confidence.
Cyrano de Bergerac is about more than its first act, though: it's about the woman whom the poet and playwright is convinced he cannot have, even though other lovely women -- namely a woman in the theater left enchanted after his dauntless display -- overlook his "ugly" appearance. That unobtainable woman, of course, would be his distant cousin Roxane, and apparently she stands outside of his sphere of confidence. This, naturally, is suitable given the nervousness of human nature around those we idealize, but it's also one of Cyrano's unusual traits: the man who galvanizes his unique appearance as a superior attribute also allows it to affect him as a flaw of convention. Does that speak to Cyrano's true insecurity, revealing that his claims of believing his nose to be a sign of virility and robustness are merely a front, or is this a peculiarity in the character himself? It's difficult to embrace the former when Ferrer's Cyrano convinces us of his assurance, but perhaps that's part of the point instead of a contradiction.
The later acts of Cyrano de Bergerac revolve around the poet's conflicted poise and Shakespearean theatricality, where he not only surrenders to his cousin's attraction for another man, but also helps him -- a young, charming, but inelegant soldier named Christian (William Prince) -- in his pursuit and romances his beloved Roxane vicariously through him. Awkward balcony scenes, promises of love-letters, and talks of marriage funnel the story into a conventional emotional arena of bittersweet heartache, relying heavily on the empathy and understanding we've built with Cyrano in that gallant theater sequence to fuel his emotional discord. Gordon's adaptation maintains the surface-level perception of what's going on, that this woman means enough to Cyrano for him to project his true feelings through Christian; yet, the deeper elements of Cyrano's affectations come in such dramatic conflict with one another that it's tough to buy his yielding, especially bearing in mind the gravitas and eloquence of Ferrer's embodiment of the character.
Remembering those leading moments in the theater -- a channel for the audience's awareness -- are what keep Gordon's Cyrano de Bergerac a frolicking, flamboyant tale of semi-false romance through the eyes of a not-quite underdog, which bolster this patchy realization of the plot's moving pieces. After charging through budget-conscious but well-orchestrated scenes of warfare that eventually underscore the somber side of romantic deception, the ending ultimately arrives at a strange bit of contrivance that also relies on our established perception of the Cyrano from the beginning, where a tragic, far-fetched fluke leads to the truth about his affection for Roxane emerging. Even in melodramatic closing moments, it's difficult not to embrace this magnetic cavalier with a bizarre nose, who defended his integrity with sword and prose until the end of his journey. Ferrer's consistent performance ensures that, allowing Michael Gordon's take on the biographical prose to endure -- if not only for that duel and his rapid-fire expression of poking fun at himself.
Video and Audio:
This is an interesting disc from Olive Films, one I suspect that's a downscaled transfer from the same master used for the Blu-ray. Cyrano de Bergerac arrives in a 1.37:1-framed transfer that expresses rich film-like qualities and exceptional depth for a standard-definition title, from fine contrast balance in close-ups and darker scenes to exquisite details. However, there are a few palpable drawbacks; some contours in faces and the costume work can't avoid some noticeable aliasing, while some noticeable print-damage crops up at certain points. The set design looks fantastic, though, and the movement generated during the fencing sequences moves smoothly, culminating in an altogether satisfying grayscale DVD presentation that's kept back from pure excellence by a few inherent flaws.
Audio arrives in a suitable-enough Dolby Digital 2-channel audio treatment that can't avoid the film's vintage: voices are clear and rich but sport occasional twangs, while the grand music flutters and punches in the background with age-restrained vigor. The cling-clang of fencing duels rings true in the upper-end of the audio, thin but concise enough to satisfy, while the presence of hiss and hum remains rather marginal during quieter, dialogue-rich sequences. It's a pretty great track, despite its limitations, and creates a fitting aural experience. No subtitles have been made available.
Nothing, aside from a chapter selection.
Come to Michael Gordon's Cyrano de Bergerac for a phenomenal first act of dueling blades and sharply-delivered dialogue from a sensational Josť Ferrer as the long-nosed hero, and stay for the conflicted romantic endeavors involving Cyrano, the woman he loves, and the man he gives a voice to so he might woo and retain his beloved Roxane. It's a classic telling of the story from Michael Gordon with moments of brilliance that make it a minor classic, even though it's saddled with a patchy moments that make someone ponder exactly why such a confident individual would vicariously romance a woman through another man. Despite that, it's a fine mix of swashbuckling, charisma, and theatricality with a great central character that knows how to navigate the complex prose of a 17th-Century warrior dramatist. Recommended.