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    Film Review: Peter Dinklage as Cyrano de Bergerac

    Joe Wright’s film version of Cyrano (2022), starring Peter Dinklage, adds a new twist to an old story about our longing to be fully known.

    By Marie Trotter

    July 14, 2022

    For the briefest moment, Cyrano’s twisted brow unfurrows. Relief floods his face. “Beautiful? He’s beautiful?” Cyrano de Bergerac, played here by Peter Dinklage, is amazed. After years of believing himself ugly, years of being mocked because of his short stature, and years of thinking himself unlovable, it seems that Roxanne, the woman he loves, has just called him beautiful. Cyrano almost smiles. He trembles, wondering at the sudden, strange feeling of being seen as you are and loved for it. But then Roxanne speaks the name of the beautiful man, and it is another man’s name, not his own: Christian Neuvillette. Cyrano’s face falls.

    It’s an incredible performance by Dinklage, one of many stunning moments in Cyrano, directed by Joe Wright. The film adapts an off-Broadway musical written by Erica Schmidt (Dinklage’s wife) and scored by indie band The National, based on the French playwright Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, an 1897 verse play about the real-life Cyrano, a seventeenth-century writer with an infamously large nose and an even larger wit. Wright’s Cyrano takes its plot from Rostand, but this film’s hero is far removed from the swaggering figure of legend. There’s no prosthetic nose here, nor the original script’s light-hearted sense of humor about its protagonist’s facial flaw. Instead, this Cyrano is short, called a “freak” by his rivals, literally looked down upon and physically endangered by a world not designed for his size.

    Cyrano moves through the story at a disadvantage; his deepest insecurity is inescapably embodied in Dinklage’s performance. The actor cannot remove his stature off-camera as past actors in the role have been able to take off the nose. But Dinklage makes his physicality the character’s strength too. This Cyrano is constantly underestimated because of his size, and so he easily overpowers men more than twice his height, using their overconfidence to disarm them. By the sword and the spoken word, Cyrano remains undefeated – but not so in love.

    Cyrano loves a woman he thinks will never love him in return: Roxanne (Haley Bennett). His expectation of romantic rejection leads him to an unlikely partnership; he teams up with Christian, an attractive but inarticulate young recruit in the local regiment, who is also a rival for Roxanne’s affections. Cyrano offers to write Roxanne love letters on Christian’s behalf, thinking that the latter’s attractiveness will give him a safe disguise for expressing his feelings. Cyrano explains to Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) that the two men can offer each other what they respectively lack: “I will make you eloquent while you make me handsome.” The result is both comic and tragic. Roxanne falls in love with one man hiding behind the image of another. By collaborating to construct a false image combining each of their best features, neither become more worthy. Their dishonesty earns Roxanne’s anger; she cannot truly know or love either one of them.

    It is this deception plot that has made Cyrano de Bergerac such an iconic – if ethically dubious – love story. The question of the lengths to which one might go to win the heart of the beloved is a perennially compelling one, as evinced by the story’s many adaptations: five operas, six musicals, at least eleven direct film adaptations, and a slew of other movies loosely based on the Cyrano plot, including Steve Martin’s comedic Roxanne (1987), Netflix’s high-school romances Sierra Burgess Is a Loser (2018) and The Half of It (2020), and even DreamWorks’ animated hit Megamind (2010). The costumes, set, and context change, but the heart of the story remains the same: a deeply human plea for acceptance. Cyrano wants to be loved for himself, with all his flaws and insufficiencies, but believes that he can never be loved because of them. What Wright’s Cyrano does differently – and in this, I think, the film surpasses its predecessors – is that it illuminates the truth hiding in the shadow of Cyrano’s desire: to be loved for oneself is to accept one’s fundamental insufficiency. And to reckon with our insufficiency is to surrender control of how others perceive us, letting our insecurities be fully seen and known – and loved.

    Cyrano standing behind pillar pining for Roxanne

    Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett in Cyrano (2021). Photo by Peter Mountain - © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    It’s not an easy lesson for Cyrano (or for anyone) to learn. Genuine love grows from the true and total seeing of the other as they are, with their flaws, vices, and failures. Cyrano and Christian know their imperfections and want to disguise them, compensating for their shortcomings by creating a false image of the ideal suitor for Roxanne: a hybrid Christian-Cyrano who both is beautiful and writes beautifully. But love is the great destroyer of images. In love there can be no persistent disguise – the truth of the self must come out eventually, however broken or embarrassing, to be either loved or rejected. And so Cyrano, having known the pain of rejection all his life, chooses to hide behind his words. In doing so, he also chooses to prioritize another distorted image: that of himself as essentially unlovable.

    This image is exquisitely crafted by Cyrano, a talented poet who nonetheless cannot imagine a story for himself other than what the world has already written for him. Schmidt’s screenplay and Wright’s direction emphasize this; during a confrontation between Cyrano and a pompous aristocrat at a theatre, Dinklage sings the bitter rant “When I Was Born,” weaponizing against his rival the mockery that has shaped his entire life: “What you’ve heard is true, I am not a rumor / I am living proof that God has a sick sense of humor.” His idea of himself as unlovable is unwavering; when his friend Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin), captain of his regiment, tries to convince him to have faith in Roxanne’s ability to see beyond appearances, he rejects the risk: “My fate is to love her from afar. To confess would be to shatter the beautiful dream.”

    This dream does them both a disservice. By never daring to ask for Roxanne’s love, Cyrano maintains control over this prideful image of himself as unlovable and untouchable, and of Roxanne as superior to him, forever unattainable. These untested images create distance between them; Cyrano is constantly mediating his love for her through his poetry, using words delivered by Christian to cross the gap. In a sense, the letters themselves become yet another false image, acting first as a conduit but then as a substitute for real romantic connection. In “Every Letter” Dinklage sings, “Will you be touched? / By my hand through this paper / Is this all too much?” Wright frames Cyrano’s frustrated desire for romantic contact through a surreal shot, stressing the strangeness of a love affair conducted by writing: Cyrano, Christian, and Roxanne sing passionately of their desires, surrounded by falling pages – while in separate rooms. The letters become objects of obsession in place of the people who write them.

    Wright frequently presents the love triangle in Cyrano in this mediated style, keeping the characters at a distance from one another and emphasizing the role of images in the construction of love. The first time Christian sees Roxanne, in the film’s opening scene, he notices her face reflected through two panes of glass – he contemplates not her but her image. Roxanne herself often appears veiled; her face shielded from her suitors’ view by a hooded cape. Roxanne and Cyrano both assess their own reflections in mirrors multiple times throughout the film and once in the same mirror, which is the right height for Roxanne but nearly too tall for Cyrano. Near the end of the film, a young nun considers her reflection in the gold backing of a crucifix, looking past the body of Christ to gaze upon the yellowed image of her own eyes. In Cyrano’s world, as in our own, the image of the self is captivating and misleading.

    Visually, Cyrano begins with mesmerizing vividness, only to gradually leave it behind for more a muted palette. The first half is resplendent with swirling fabrics and rich colors: Roxanne in skirts of vibrant green, Christian and Cyrano wielding flashing sabers in their regiment’s scarlet uniforms. The costumes and production design create a world illuminated by the shades of first love: blush-pink dresses, glowing candlelight in a jewel-box of a theater, a shining wax seal on a letter. The enchantments fade away in the film’s latter half, replaced by darker, more subdued tones as Cyrano and Christian confront the consequences of their deception. Sent to the warfront by the vindictive Comte de Guiche, a former suitor of Roxanne’s, the two men realize the gravity of their mistakes on the ashy, snow-covered slopes of Mount Etna, the volcanic peak looming in the background. Through the exposure of the lie, Wright makes the film’s world grey and bleak.

    The film jumps forward several years for its last scene. Christian has died at the front, Cyrano was wounded there and has not healed, and Roxanne has retreated to a convent awaiting his weekly visits. The two meet for the last time under the empty arches of a newly built cathedral. The dying Cyrano wears black, Roxanne wears white; together, they confront the truth as Cyrano finally confesses his feelings. The colorfully seductive images of the past are gone, and the only love letter in this scene is years old, a distant, bloodstained memory rescued from Christian’s corpse. Cyrano can no longer hide behind pretense or disguise and yet, still, he protests: “I don’t love you, my love.” His heart is bleeding out, he collapses to the ground, wounded and insufficient, weak before his beloved as he has pretended not to be for a lifetime.

    And – perhaps amazingly to Cyrano – Roxanne does not reject him. Now in possession of the entire truth, she confesses her love for him; not for his words, not for Christian. And then Dinklage utters Cyrano’s very last line: “And I loved… my pride.” In this heartbreaking revelation, Cyrano recognizes his own role in preventing himself from receiving Roxanne’s love; his lethal folly in holding as absolute truth the distorted image of himself as an inherently unlovable person because of his physical appearance. This false image dies when he receives – for the briefest, sweetest moment – the love of which he always felt himself unworthy. And then Cyrano dies, too, in Roxanne’s arms, on the floor of a cathedral, gazing up at her eyes and the fading light of sunset, falling from the heavens.

    It would be easy to spend another page describing this Cyrano’s technical beauty – the gorgeous cinematography of ancient streets in Sicily, the excellent performances by Bennett as a lively, determined Roxanne and Harrison Jr. as the charming and endearing Christian, the unexpectedly moving soundtrack from The National, whose songs almost capture the story’s intense poetry, if occasionally hindered by lyrical unevenness. But at the heart of Cyrano’s beauty is the passionate, profound performance by Peter Dinklage, moving between intense vulnerability and impenetrable guardedness, both revealing and disguising his soul before our eyes. In contrast to the outsized legendary bravado of past iterations of Cyrano, Dinklage’s sensitivity makes Cyrano achingly human. It is Dinklage in this Cyrano who illuminates the universal longing Rostand hinted at more than a hundred years ago in his play script: the hope that unconditional love might set us free from the narrow vision of human judgment, so that we may be seen and known not by our images or our reflections, but as we truly are.

    Contributed By

    Marie Trotter is a PhD Candidate at McGill University studying the plays of Shakespeare. She is also a poet, playwright, and art critic.

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