Critics have never regarded Cyrano De Bergerac as the greatest creation of French literature, but ever since it first appeared on stage in 1897 it's been one of the most loved. This film managed to make it even more popular.
There had been several relatively successful film versions in the past, but it was Jean Paul Rappeneau who really brought the character to life, thanks to a smart script, a career-defining performance from Gérard Depardieu and a smart director who made the most of what was then one of the largest budgets in French cinema history.
To tackle the screenplay, Rappeneau teamed up with Jean Claude Carrière, one of the best French writers in the business (a frequent Jean Luc Goadard collaborator as well as the screenwriter of huge hits such as Le Retour De Martin Guerre). They ruthlessly reworked Edmond Rostand's unwieldy, wordy play, paring it down considerably while still maintaining its atmosphere by using rhymes, unexpected linguistic tricks (both replicated in the subtitles in a deft translation by Anthony Burgess), and keeping faith with the classic romance.
The story is the life and death of Cyrano De Bergerac (Depardieu). He's a swordsman so skilled he can take on 100 enemies at once with ease. He's such a talented poet that he can come up with verses at the same time as he's fighting those 100 men. He's well connected, and he's admired and adored by all who know him. Yet, in spite of all these gifts, he's sad. The reason? "I can never be loved," he sighs. "My nose precedes me by 15 minutes."
Cyrano is infatuated with his cousin Roxane (Brochet), but too afraid to declare his love. When the handsome but dim Christian De Neuvillette (Perez) falls for her as well, the two men team up to win the exacting noblewoman over; Cyrano supplying the brains, De Neuvillette the looks. Initially their plan runs smoothly, and Cyrano even has the bittersweet pleasure of declaring his love to Roxane under a darkened balcony, before De Neuvillette climbs up to snog her. Inevitably, the affair becomes more complex than any party could have predicted&
As anyone who's seen a Depardieu film knows, there's no one that can touch him for hamming it up and laying on the Gallic charm but initially he was thought a strange choice to play Cyrano. He may have had the nose (although this was considerably built up using prosthetics) but his lumbering frame and macho presence were considered too powerful for the effete De Bergerac. As it turns out, it's Depardieu's ability to express this weakness and gentle melancholy in spite of his size that makes the film so touching and effective. The jokes come thick and fast, the story gallops along as fast as the many horses Rappeneau had at his disposal and the set pieces never fail to impress, but it's Depardieu's soft voiced tristesse and vulnerability that add the extra dimension required to make this film such rewarding viewing from the start to the gloriously over-the-top finish.