The ‘Cyrano’ Conundrum: Is Courtly Love Romantic Or Just Obnoxious?

The big question for any new adaptation of a classic text is which parts do you update and which parts do you retain? Cyrano, a new adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, opening this weekend from MGM, bills itself as a “timeless tale of a heartbreaking love triangle.”

The “timelessness” might be a tough sell. We get new actors, updated language, and a bold reimagining of the title character, but the Victorian sexual mores and courtly romance remain, making Cyrano all but impossible to appreciate as a modern love story. It’s more like Masterpiece Theater, something to be enjoyed as a handsome museum piece or nodded at obligingly from behind monocle glass.

Cyrano De Bergerac, the actual 17th-century French dramatist who was first immortalized in a famous play by Edmond Rostand in 1897, has since been played on film by at least 10 different stars, most recently by Kevin Kline (2008), Gerard Depardieu (1985), and Steve Martin (1987), the latter in a contemporary-set adaptation in which Cyrano was reimagined as a small-town fire chief. In every case, the character was a brash wit with a nose so big he was convinced he could never be loved.

In this new adaptation from Darkest Hour director Joe Wright and writer Erica Schmidt, Cyrano de Bergerac is played by famous little person actor Peter Dinklage, the character’s prodigious nose reimagined as a height deficiency. It’s a bold character choice (and a logical one; most big-nosed guys I know smash). It’s also Peter Dinklage as we love to see him: delivering withering insults and concealing mushy sentimentality behind deft verbal parries in a Mid-Atlantic accent. “Isn’t Cyrano de Bergerac a bit like Tyrion Lannister?” is not bad, as seed ideas go. Beyond that, most of Cyrano‘s energy seems to have gone towards sumptuous staging.

This version is still set in 17th-century Paris, Cyrano still pines after Roxanne (the luminous Hailey Bennett, her hair dyed an inexplicable and slightly jarring strawberry — filmmakers love a redheaded love interest), and Roxanne still loves Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Even assuming only vague memories of a Cyrano adaptation from your childhood (the Steve Martin one for me), you probably remember the basic framework: witty, “ugly” Cyrano teams up with dopey handsome guy Christian to win Roxanne’s affections, with Cyrano providing the words and Christian the chiseled abs and stunning features. (Ben Mendelsohn shows up briefly as the gloriously unctuous fop De Guiche, which is an incredible fop name).

Cyrano is also a musical adaptation, with songs by Bryce and Aaron Dessner, usually soundtracking elaborately choreographed set pieces. How much you enjoy a musical tends to be directly proportional to how much you enjoy the songs in that musical, and Cyrano‘s music is mostly decent. By far its best song is “Wherever I Fall,” sung by Glen Hansard (The Swell Season, Once), a swelling folk-rock number sung from the perspective of Cyrano and Christian’s cadet troops on the eve of a decisive battle. It’s a great number, but also a long one (the movie’s longest), which is weird for something that’s essentially a digression — a song about the hopes and dreams of characters who show up only for this one scene, a war theme in a story about unrequited love, and a contemporary-sounding song in a period piece.

All the while, Roxanne, as you might imagine, seems to be falling harder for the idea of Christian, which is to say, for Cyrano’s words, than for the real Christian’s sexy face and shredded bod. Still, Cyrano protects his secret, well beyond the point of all reason, and the film ends basically the way the original play ends (which I guess I will avoid spoiling here — do we really need to avoid spoiling 120-year-old plays?). Suffice it to say, all of it raises the question of how much use modern audiences have for courtly love. (How much did even gilded age audiences have for it?).

Is it really more romantic to fall for someone’s facility with words than for their physical form? I’m sure we writers — which would traditionally include the authors of Cyrano and all its adaptations — would love to think so, but I’m not convinced that this wouldn’t just be the same human caprice in a different form. Cyrano is based on this basically medieval conception of love as something occurring between two souls, as separate from their physical form, a connection more deep than crass lust for a manly chest or an irresistible butthole or whatever.

A million stories past and present have attempted to explore this same concept, from The Lobster to Love Is Blind on Netflix, and Cyrano‘s version strikes me as especially childish. Thinking someone should love you for some ill-defined, cosmic conception of self and not your general attractiveness to others and affinity for that specific person (the physical and non-physical being inseparable) is about as deep as an Instagram meme (“if you can’t love me at my worst…”). It seems far more interesting to explore that specifically human caprice, of what makes a person attractive, and two people compatible (as The Lobster does), than to lionize this bifurcated, intellectualized love as some aspirational ideal.

Which is to say I have limited use for love stories about people who never admit their feelings. What is romance without chemistry? Cyrano is gorgeous to look at and periodically to listen to, but narratively it’s a lazy take on the material, combining Victorian ideas of purity with Love Actually clichés prizing impotent schoolboy pining over actual connection. In spirit it’s a lot more like the boring, beautiful Christian than it is the audacious homely Cyrano.

‘Cyrano’ opens only in theaters February 25th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.