Love Is True But Not Honest In ‘Cyrano’
Peter Dinklage stars in this new musical spin on a classic
I’m going to go ahead and be honest about this one time I wasn’t exactly honest. I didn’t tell an outright lie but I did send a romantic text to a woman that I had written for another woman.
Yes, that’s right. I recycled a few sentences I had written someone else. I cut words from one text field and pasted them in another text field. It was a form of deception but I thought it was a forgivable one. It’s not like I catfished anyone. At worst, self-plagiarism is catfish-adjacent.
I have another confession: I don’t even think I wrote the original text. I have no excuse. I was horny and lazy, which is a terrible combination. I think I rewrote lyrics from a Sting song? Shape Of My Heart maybe? It was a long time ago. Here’s what I do remember. I wanted to seduce someone, anyone, and so I sent stolen words… but no photos because I felt old and fat and I didn’t have any selfies of me on a boat.
Eventually, both women stopped responding to my texts. They were both lovely, funny people who may have actually liked me if I had just let them get to know me. Instead, they both got late-night inquiries like “how u” and rewritten pop song lyrics.
I met one the old-fashioned way, at a bar. The other one got my number from a mutual friend. She made the first move and even then, I couldn’t just be me.
I think it is common to think that dating is more complicated and heartbreaking than ever but I don’t think that’s right. Apps suck but so does being a human being with a jiggly body full of juices. Dating has always been hard. I don’t see how it could ever have been easy. Besides road trips and microwaves, I don’t know many technologies that have made essential human rituals any easier and that includes love.
It is hard — backbreaking, exhausting — to find love because you have to be seen to do it. It’s like the opposite of hunting: instead of crouching in the brush, you have to stand and hoot and open your arms and let the world know you are ready. You have to become a target. You cannot flinch or duck, even if you are laughed at or worse, ignored. You have to be vulnerable. I have looked in the mirror and wondered how anyone could love someone like me. I’d rather be someone else, preferably a young, slim, charming boat owner. Anyone other than me.
If Cyrano were real and alive today he’d understand.
To be ‘catfished’ online is to be lied to by someone who isn’t who they say they are. These people are scam artists but some are deeply lonely, and troubled. The term comes from a 2010 documentary titled Catfish, about a filmmaker who is fooled by strangers on the internet. He is lied to by people hiding behind their words.
This is, if you squint, also the plot of the popular 1887 verse play Cyrano De Bergerac written by French playwright Edmond Rostand. The melodrama has remained popular, both on stage and in film, since it first premiered in Paris. It just touches a nerve. The most recent movie adaptation, simply titled Cyrano, is a sumptuous musical hallucination directed by Joe Wright.
The story of Cyrano de Bergerac is well known and mercifully simple: the fiery Roxanne is friends with the quick-witted but ugly Cyrano and infatuated with the dim — and well-meaning — hunk Christian. However, Cyrano is in love with Roxanne and does not think she could ever love someone like him, so he decides to loan Christian his talent and help him woo her. He writes her lovesick letters but has Christian sign them, and in the second most famous balcony scene in dramatic literature, he whispers seductive words to Christian who then shouts them up to Roxanne. They are both lying to Roxanne, of course, no matter their intentions. In fact, both Cyrano and Christian are ruled by their insecurities. Christian is sure Roxanne could not love a man as inarticulate as he. And he’s right, ultimately.
Rostand’s mushy opus is timeless because it’s about unrequited love, which is my preferred method of emotional self-harm. I have loved from afar, I have trembled and confessed my love and that love has not been returned, and I’m sure there are some who have never experienced such heartbreak and to those happy folks I can only say “well, good for you.” I truly hope there aren’t many of those types.
But Cyrano De Bergerac has a darker theme that is no less universal. The play is also about how fear poisons the truth and sabotages the heart.
Watching Wright’s Cyrano is a little like watching a surprise public wedding proposal, which is both embarrassing and charming to behold and you can’t help but get a lump in your throat at the promise of it all. The director of the feverish Ana Karninina and the recent Oscar-winner Darkest Hour is in love with love in Cyrano, a breathless parade of 19th-century French costumes and swordfights and emotions, so many emotions!
Wright loves his actors and the love songs they sing and sunlight and moonshine and poetry. It’s a bit much.
Cyrano will be difficult to watch for those who have spent the last few decades fattening themselves up with irony, which has been in plentiful supply. There is no irony in Cyrano: lovers love, with everything they have because love is the only reason to live and that’s not a terrible philosophy. I think our society’s cultural loyalty to sarcasm and ridicule and all the various uppity cousins of irony keeps us from embracing simple ideas like “all you need is love” and that’s why we settle for loving stuff and things and extra cheese instead of other human beings. We collectively laugh and point at those who show their asses, which is funny, yes, fools are funny, but one cannot love with abandon without tripping and falling and looking like a fool, because to love completely is to show your ass to the world and not care at all. This ass, says the poet, this ass is for you and only you, the one I love.
In Cyrano, Peter Dinklage stars as literature’s most beloved creep, the swashbuckling poet who lurks in the shadows and pretends to be someone else.
The part of Cyrano de Bergerac has been a favorite of hams for generations. Jose Ferrer and Gerard Depardieu and even Steve Martin, to name a few, have portrayed the title character on the big screen. When one plays Cyrano, one gets to be witty, passionate and tortured. Cyrano is, also, a master swordfighter, so there is a little derring-do. His only flaw is external, a massive nose that would be comical if Cyrano weren’t so gallant.
Traditionally, actors who play the character wear a great big fake proboscis and that’s where this new movie version of Cyrano improves on its source material casting an actor who cannot hide who he is from the camera. Dinklage is one of our most emotionally available actors. The furrowed brow, the sensual lips, the rogueish smirk. He is dashing and confident and as Cyrano, he is also an outsider who is mocked for being a little person.
As Roxanne, Haley Bennett is beautiful and tempestuous, a person who craves words. Kelvin Harrison Jr’s Christian is impossible to dislike. He may not be as brilliant or complicated as Cyrano but he has a heart that is good, solid, true. The best melodramas have ridiculous evil villains and the great Ben Mendelsohn is superb as a wealthy royal fop who is also in love with, and wholly undeserving of, Roxanne. Mendelsohn knows his job is to be booed and hissed at and even then, he is able to sneak in a few moments of humanity.
Cyrano isn’t like a proper Broadway musical where scenes explode into songs and riotous dancing. The movie itself has a dreamlike quality to it as if it’s taking place in the twilight between sleep and wakefulness where seeing lovers floating in the air or soldiers billowing in the wind just makes sense.
The music is by Grammy-winning indie bros The National whose melancholy gloom rock is perfectly suited for a love story that is stalked by sorrow. The songs in Cyrano are spoken and whispered and belted out by singers and non-singers. Imagine Les Miserables, only imagine it not trying so hard.
The primary vehicle of courtship in Cyrano is the written word, scratched out in ink by a quill on paper that is tightly folded and sealed with hot red wax. Fast forward a few hundred years and society is once again communicating with words, short bursts of words, delivered via text and DM and published on social media platforms. We live in an epistolatory era, much like Cyrano’s. Some things don’t change, I suppose.
Roxanne does not deserve to be catfished but who does? Cyrano should have told her how he felt from the get-go and Christian always knew better, but he allowed his lust to run the show. Say what you feel, now, while you can. That’s the lesson. The only lesson. Life is too short. That is what Cyrano teaches.
Sadly, love doesn’t always conquer all, sometimes love surrenders to shame or pride, or fear. When that happens, the heart loses its courage and that’s all you have, ultimately. Love is a risk. The phrase is “falling in love” not “slowly sitting in love” or “sipping a lukewarm cup of love.” Whether you trip or jump, when you fall in love it’s best to open your eyes and spread your arms and fly. You cannot fly but you should try anyway.
And then shout your truth on the way down. Example: “Roxanne, I love you!” Be who you are while you still have the time.