“Cyrano” languishes as an overwrought metaphor


Ashmi Pednekar

Peter Dinklage dazzles in his titular role in the film “Cyrano,” which premiered in theaters on Feb. 25. However, the film proves that there exists a line between art and entertainment; it passes as art but doesn’t easily entertain.

“Cyrano” landed in theaters on Feb. 25 with an all-star cast of Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett and Ben Mendelsohn, with Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice” and “Darkest Hour”) at the helm as director. Though for a movie that emphasizes the power of words, its own messages fail to resonate. 

The movie-musical is based on the 1897 French play “Cyrano de Bergerac ” by Edmond Rostand. The Cyrano in the original play was infamous for his large nose, but the movie swaps this out for Dinklage’s dwarven stature instead. Thus, Cyrano, despite being captain of the guard, as skilled with wordplay as he is with the sword, tends to be dismissed by others as a freak. So it is not surprising that as he finds himself pining for his childhood friend Roxanne, the two of them still each other’s closest confidants, Roxanne reveals that she is in love with Christian, a soldier under Cyrano’s guard. So begins a long, lethargic medieval French love triangle as Cyrano offers to write love letters to Roxanne on behalf of the inarticulate Christian, asking viewers the question: How far are you willing to go for someone you love?

The movie attempts to answer this, but its take is largely unfulfilling. Unlike “Romeo and Juliet” or its contemporary, “West Side Story,-” “Cyrano” holds no solid assurance of love amidst lover’s woes. The lovelorn complications of “Cyrano” could arguably be considered more nuanced than Shakespeare’s two lovers in Verona and their endless derivations, but this tends to work against the film by leaving viewers with no solid footing to eagerly watch the relationships play out. At least with two lovers bearing it out to the ends of death, it’s pretty clear that the two lovers are, well, in love. But the whole movie is characterized by a sense of pining that makes the movie feel unresolved and draining to watch.

The main problem with “Cyrano” is that it fails to come across as a compelling love story. It feels wrong to root for anyone: even as the romance between Christian and Roxanne blossoms, viewers are left with the secondhand guilt that Roxanne loves Christian for a soul and wit that belong to Cyrano. With Cyrano so stymied by his pride that he can only confess his love through letters under another man’s name, everyone in the movie seems to be spinning their own web of half-truths and false fronts save for Roxanne. Quick-witted and played by a luminous Bennett, she’s left to deal with the emotional wreckage of the aftermath — and even then she does her fair bit of manipulating with the foppish Duke De Guiche (Mendelsohn), whom she’s betrothed to. 

It feels wrong to root for anyone: even as the romance between Christian and Roxanne blossoms, viewers are left with the secondhand guilt that Roxanne loves Christian for a soul and wit that belong to Cyrano.

All the discomfort the viewers suffer might be tolerable if it was meant to enforce a deeper meaning or expose a relevant societal issue, but that’s when the movie’s far-removed historical context regrettably flares up. The story’s language, conflicts and societal expectations all adhere firmly to medieval France-chic; but when the movie advertises itself as a love story as well, it fails to transcend its place in time and connect to audiences in the present-day. 

Despite the story’s fallings, the movie enraptures under Wright’s intimate cinematography; every frame comes across as incredibly thoughtful. He weaves flow throughout his sequences, creating long, continuous shots that are both playful and urgent as they circle around people and in and out of rooms. He stages an entire musical sequence as viewed through the reflection in a carriage window, crafting meticulous perspective. And as he lingers on the ending shot of a cream-colored abbey bathed in dying light, he unifies color and lighting to make for scenes beautiful in their subdued harmony of composition.

However, with such nuance in direction, the musical portion of the movie almost seems like an unnecessary addendum. Compared to the sensitive camerawork, the songs can’t help but feel out of place. Most of the lyrics are trite and forgettable — ironic, as this is a movie hung on the alleged power of words. The one memorable song was the gut punch of “Wherever I Fall,” in which soldiers under Cyrano heading off to a near-certain-death mission voice their fears, worries and ultimately their hopes in one last letter to their loved ones. But it’s alarming that the one song that struck a poignant note was the one with none of the main characters in it.

The choice to adapt the story of Cyrano for the big screen is odd, to say the least. “Cyrano” is an unhappy story to digest, and it’s hard to think of an audience that would eagerly flock to view a rather depressing and drawn-out thesis on the nature of love.

Yet it might not entirely be the movie’s fault. We are hooked on short bursts of adrenaline, on edge-of-the-seat stimulation, as evidenced by the popularity of the thriller series “Squid Game” and action-packed movies like “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” “Cyrano” feels like one giant meditation, and that tends to work to its disadvantage. We live in a world that’s too fast-paced to appreciate a story that’s not exactly light and happy but lacks the whirlwind of action to make up for it.

 “Cyrano” tries to be a metaphor for certain muddled concepts: loving what’s on the inside, the power of words, the things you’ll do for someone you love. But it’s exactly because the movie tries to be deeper than your average love triangle that watching it feels awkwardly anachronistic: it’s just hard to appreciate a 17th century love story, pulled from relative obscurity, sending out lovelorn philosophical messages that just don’t seem to fit into modern times.

Wright’s work is proof that there is indeed a line between art and entertainment. “Cyrano” revolves in a beautiful aesthetic of modern-age cinematography and heartrending performance that gives it the potential to be considered a work of art, but it stumbles when it comes to entertainment. Far from a pleasure cruise, “Cyrano” challenges its audiences to keep thinking even after the lights go up. But it’s not the type of thinking that results in a particularly hopeful view of love, and in an age when even the most intense types of unrequited love are perhaps not as mad and melancholy as Cyrano’s, is it even necessary to take on that challenge? Maybe not.