Saturday, 7 November 2015

All my colours... Cyrano de Bergerac (1925)

This is a lovely looking film employing the “Pathé Stencil Process” – over its three-year gestation to produce an astonishingly colourful 113 minutes – the Avatar of its day complete with projected thought…

Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play has done the rounds and watching the narrative unfold you realise that you’ve absorbed the story almost  by cinematic osmosis… repeated viewings with fragments of Ferrer, dollops of Depardieu and a morsel of Steve Martin. On the face of it (no pun intended) a love story featuring a man with an impossibly large nose – dramatically unnecessary I've always thought – making love to a beautiful woman by channeling his poetry through a handsome but less eloquent man, should have little appeal. Yet, there’s something compelling about this scenario – a universal truth in our inability to tell all to those we most want to touch. Cyrano is a very brave man but he is constrained by both self-doubt and an immense sense of honour.

Linda Moglia and Angelo Ferrari
The story is set in 1640 during the reign of Louise XIII when France was on the verge of war with Spain.

We see some of the main players arriving at the Hôtel Burgundy Theatre to watch a performance by the actor Montfleury. There’s the beautiful Roxane (Linda Moglia) who is admired from afar by the youthful cadet Baron Christian de Neuvillette (Angelo Ferrari) and who is hardly in the running as the Count De Guiche (Umberto Casilini) has plans to marry her off to a noble ally.

The plumes of vengeance
The theatre fills and the colours are superb as the play begins and, Montfleury who has been banned by another noble cadet, Cyrano de Bergerac (Pierre Magnier ) after making “sheep eyes” at Roxane, bravely ventures forth to the centre of the stage.

There is movement in the crowd and two white plumes are seen passing through the throng, eventually revealing themselves atop the hat of Cyrano - a man revered as much for his poetry as his swordsmanship - Montfleury pulls back in alarm and, after a volley of rhyming couplets retreats as fast as his legs can carry. One of De Guiche’s party challenges Cyrano and is swiftly despatched by a combination of his words and blade…

Cyrano is challenged
It’s an audacious opening and all the more difficult to pull off in a silent film, yet director Augusto Genina paces things well and allows his lead the time to use his expressiveness to good effect with his prosthetic proboscis somehow drawing the viewer’s focus to his eyes. There is the odd jolting quick-cut but that may be down to missing film… a minor quibble.

Roxanne looks on
Cyrano’s cousin Roxane is more than impressed with his display – no one seems that bothered about the play - and his eyes reveal his depth of affection as the two agree to meet the next day. He accompanies his pals Le Bret (Maurice Schutz) and the pastry chef-cum-poet Ragueneau (Alex Bernard) to the latter’s home were his heroism is celebrated en masse: who needs a stage play when you have the best improv in France?

Roxane reveals that she is in love and, his hopes flickering, Cyrano is crushed to discover that it is with another, the youthful Baron Christian who, like so many in this film, looks like a refugee from an early seventies progressive rock band (the guitarist in Jethro Tull or Gentle Giant’s bass player? Can’t decide…).

Cyrano promises to do his best to protect his fellow cadet and he is soon bound by an additional duty after meeting the fellow and discovering his tongue-tied reciprocation of Roxane’s infatuation (oops, drifting into verse myself…).

The Baron and the King
Now this is going to get complicated and the story’s most famous scene is soon played out as Christian tries to woo Roxane by repeating words of love fed to him by Cyrano. As he stands below her balcony Roxane melts at the sweet phrasing as if words meant more than looks ever could… and here is the universal appeal, as truth is found in expression not necessarily in beauty. albeit via deception (there I go again…).

But war is coming and the men must away… how will this pan out and will the course of ventriloquent love ever run smoothly?

Cyrano has the brains and Christian's got the looks...
There are so many ways in which this could not work and yet it does and I found the film rather more engaging than I expected. Yes, I’m a sucker for tints and it does look gorgeous, but the story draws you in until the very last whilst the acting is so strong especially from Linda Moglia and Pierre Magnier. I’ve never had this high a regard for Cyrano before and that’s probably because it appears closer to the play than other versions I’ve seen.

Stunning set pieces: so much ink!!
The cinematography by Ottavio De Matteis is of the lush variety and you really have to take your plumed hat off to those colourists: the film was followed by a mass outbreak of carpel tunnel syndrome which was only alleviated by the advent of technicolour… probably!

The song and the singer
I watched the Lobster Films restoration which features a stirring score from Kurt Kuenne and performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra with Timothy Brock waving the stick. It’s occasionally a little too stirring but that mostly fits well with this all round exercise in panache!

Just don't say a thing Christian.
 The film is available from The Amazons of Avoidance or direct from those lovely Lobsters.

Seemingly there was a real Cyrano de Bergerac, I bet he didn’t really have the nose.

There is a dream sequence I forgot to mention...


  1. Have a look at historical prints of "Cyrano de Bergerac" on the Timeline of Historical Film Colors:

    1. That is fascinating - so much work in those frames! Thanks for sharing.