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Cyrano de Bergerac remains one of the most enduring figures of French literature — just think of the sight of Gerard Depardieu with that prominent nose in one of his most iconic roles. But Cyrano’s creator, Edmond Rostand, isn’t the household name that other playwrights like Marivaux, Moliere and Racine are. That might change after the release of Edmond, a glossy mainstream picture about Rostand’s creation of Cyrano at the tender age of 29, written and directed by Alexis Michalik, and based on his already popular play.
A plump role for relative newcomer Thomas Soliveres, Rostand is the pivot on which the entire story turns. But he’s hardly the protagonist; this is a choral film whose large cast includes quite a few familiar faces, including Olivier Gourmet as the actor giving life to Cyrano; Mathilde Seigner as the diva cast opposite him; Jean-Pierre Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon as an impatient stage director, and the actor-director himself as Rostand’s rival, the much more successful playwright Feydeau.
Designed for the masses in way that recalls Shakespeare in Love, with its mix of highbrow culture and lowbrow, behind-the-scenes comedy, drama and romance, this is the kind of four-quadrant entertainment that has a very wide appeal. Indeed, Edmond has been doing solid business since it was released locally Jan. 9, and has already sold to a raft of territories including practically all of Europe, Australia, Canada and China.
It’s 1895 Paris, and a pièce written by Rostand (Soliveres) starring Sarah Bernhardt (Clementine Celarie, delicious) closes after barely a week. Two years later, Rostand, now 29, still hasn’t written anything new, much to the despair of his young wife (Alice de Lencquesaing, dutiful), who has kids to feed and bills to pay. But then Bernhardt introduces him to the famous actor Constant Coquelin (Gourmet, fittingly grandiose), who needs his next hit. The urgency of the assignment gets Rostand’s creative juices flowing, and together with a local cafe owner, the erudite Honore (Jean-Michel Martial) — who, as a black man, understands something about being an underdog — he improvises the story of Cyrano.
Of course, in this kind of fanciful re-creation, the famous story will have to be inspired by supposed events in the life of its creator, so a dashing actor friend (Tom Leeb) of the playwright falls for costume designer Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah) but can’t find the words to express how he feels. Good thing he has a friend who is a writer: Rostand, who is, of course, secretly in love with Jeanne as well. And she, in turn, turns out to be a major fan of Rostand’s writing, except she doesn’t know that he’s really the playwright she so admires because of the way the two were first introduced.
Glass-half-empty people might say that the story isn’t exactly surprising, but this is the kind of narrative that only really works if you are at least vaguely familiar with the outcome. Because spotting the (again supposed) inspiration for famous scenes before the characters do is part of what makes this kind of tale fun. And, for once, a fluffy entertainment of this kind actually pauses for a second to think about the implications of having its married, father-of-two lead fall for another woman.
Not all subplots are equally strong, including an odd detour into a brothel that feels decidedly last century in its approach to all things sexual, on top of featuring a bizarre cameo appearance by — of all people — Anton Chekhov (Micha Lescot). But generally, Michalik manages to advance the various story strands persuasively, and with a lot of energy. And he surrounds the core of more fleshed-out characters — Rostand and the characters played by Gourmet, Seigner, Leeb and Boujenah — with a larger cast of convincing, amusingly limned archetypes (Pinon wins this contest hands down).
In terms of its execution, a lot of money has been thrown at the screen, and it shows, with Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci’s camera constantly gliding over the Parisian rooftops and through the bars and theaters, Franck Schwarz’s production design vivid and opulent — a lot of the film was actually shot in the Czech Republic — and Thierry Delettre’s costumes also a feast for the eyes. The last act’s directorial coup de theatre, or rather coup de cinema, is a bold and smart choice that drives home the emotions of the characters in the home stretch, with Romain Trouillet’s warm bath of a score further suggesting that Michalik, for whom this is his first feature as a director, has a real nose for creating crowd-pleasers with an appealing mix of froth, art and heart.
Production companies: Gaumont, France 2 Cinema, Ezra, Rosemonde Films, C2M Productions
Cast: Thomas Soliveres, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clementine Celarie, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andreoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik
Writer-Director: Alexis Michalik
Producer: Alain Goldman
Director of photography: Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci
Production designer: Franck Schwarz
Costume designer: Thierry Delettre
Editors: Anny Danche, Marie Silvi
Music: Romain Trouillet
Casting: Michael Lagens
Venue: Utopia Luxembourg
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