THE WINNER, BY A NOSE Gerard Depardieu finds sweet smell of success in 'Cyrano'


A nose is a nose is a nose, especially when appended to the visage of M. de Bergerac, of Paris, France, noted raconteur, swordsman, drama critic, poet, wit and self-pitier.

Jean-Paul Rappeneau's sumptuous, swirling version of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac," with the great Gerard Depardieu as the cavalier with the Scud for a snout, opens today at the Charles. The film works hard to exile English-speaking audiences in the first act, and just manages to fail; but by the second half hour, Rappeneau has found his tone and the movie just gets better and better.

Rostand's original play is such a blather of enchanting adolescent nobility and hokum that it's become a staple of freshman year, where it belongs when it's not on the screen. Does anybody not know the essence of Cyrano, the yearning romantic whose nose is one of the mountainsof the moon. It's, er, big. Does anybody not know that he loves a woman named Roxane who cannot love him (the nose, you see) and so, by proxy he makes love to Roxy, through the oaf -- simple but handsome -- Christian? Christian is the body and the face and the little, dinky, cutie-wootie nose; Cyrano is the soul. Then, through a maze of melodramatic switchbacks all expertly calculated, Cyrano is locked in the yoke of his own nobility and cannot betray the lie he's created, even after Christian's death in battle.

Perhaps you have to be either chronologically or metaphysically 14 to respond to the subtext. Like any adolescent who hates the crusty red betrayal of his skin or the way his tongue turns into a psychotic snail when he has to address a female, Cyrano hates his own face, with its megabeak. The nose is his fate, his destiny, his tragedy. Yet in all other ways, he's really cool: he can fight good, he can always think of a neat thing to say. And his love is of the yearning variety, all the more poignant for its evident disconnection from the mysterious world of actual s-x.

In this role, DNA-coded to favor the verbally facile, the great Depardieu, with his hulking, quasi-Neanderthal vitality, would seem completely miscast. The great American Cyrano was Jose Ferrer, a man of considerable intellectual force and the classically trained actor's smart-bomb diction. (Ferrer won an Oscar in 1950.) Depardieu is from a different school, however: he's a street guy, a demi-Brando, a linebacker.

But he's wonderful. Perhaps it's that the French in his mouth is alien to my ears and so I don't miss the incredible force of Ferrer's verbal control. But a lot of it also is the secret of Depardieu's charm: the almost giddy grace, under the bulk, that gives both the swordplay and the wordplay the force of conviction.

In the early going, Rappeneau almost loses his audience. The famous first act establishes Cyrano's bona fides: he drives a hammy actor from the stage, insults a powerful nobleman and fights a duel with a lackey, first in words and then in blades, composing heroic couplets all along.

Rappeneau's camera work is so fluid and whirling -- it's as if the camera is riding Cyrano's billowing cape -- and the screen is so jammed with details that it's all but impossible to both read the subtitles and follow the action.

But beyond the first act, Rappeneau settles down to more conservative filmmaking and lets the sturdy

structure of Rostand's melodrama support the action. Rostand constructed brilliantly; the best scenes are a yin-yang of contradictory emotion, with Cyrano's heart saying yesyesyes and his nose saying nono- nono.

The Roxane of Anne Brochet is less flaxen-haired and spacey-beautiful than the usual, and the Christian of Vincent Perez is also more naturalistic than male-model-like. And the schnozolla concocted for Depardieu, while meaty as a ham hock, isn't one of those ballistic jobs so beloved of high school versions of the play; it's not a monument, it's just a really big nose.

'Cyrano de Bergerac'

'Cyrano de Bergerac'

Starring Gerard Depardieu.

Directed by Jean-Claude Rappeneau.

Released by Orion Classics.

Rated PG.

*** 1/2

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