- 23 Mar 20
I love a man in uniform.
When, after a false start, I made it to university in 1990, I felt I had finally arrived. OK, I was in Maynooth, hardly Paris or Rome, despite the churches and the lads in frocks, but it was all new to me and I immediately set about passing myself off as some class of urbane sophisticate. Absolutely nobody fell for it.
There were women from all over the country there, and they were all beautiful. The problem was, I wasn’t. What could a poor boy do? What he always did - talk a good game. One such impossibly attractive woman came from Kerry and was studying French. We became friends and the talk was the most important talk in the history of the world because we were eighteen. Did I know the Rostand play, Cyrano de Bergerac? Why, of course I did! Of course, I didn’t. There wasn't much call for turn-of-the-century French drama in the midlands of the Eighties. What I did know was the hugely enjoyable Steve Martin movie Roxanne, and I knew that was loosely based on Rostand’s story, so I used that as a basis for my plámásing.
Luckily for me, that was the year that Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s fairly faithful version of the play hit the cinema screens. The plan was foolproof. Casually mention to this paragon of beauty that the movie was showing, pointing out how it could only be an aid to her studies, and suggest that I tag along because of my general and admirable interest in the arts. A big romantic French movie kicks in and she would surely fall into my open arms. It couldn’t miss.
Back in those days, the only place to see that kind of thing was the original Lighthouse Cinema on Abbey Street, where, as luck would have it, the 66 from Maynooth dropped you off. This saved me any awkward scenes with regard to buying a drink or something to eat as I was, needless to say, potless. Still, the stage was set, the day would surely be mine.
What happened, of course, was completely different. Jean-Claude Petit’s score swelled up from the dark and I was lost. The person to my left as forgotten to me as I surely was to her. The movie and play begins in a French theatre – the Hôtel de Bourgogne to be exact, a theatre that stood in the 2nd arrondissement for over two hundred years - as the populace spill in. We see the peasantry, playing cards and picking fights, and the pomp of the aristocracy. The ridiculously handsome Christian implores the drunken poet Liginére to tell him who the beautiful woman is he has fallen for. Ragueneau the baker and Le Bret wonder whether Cyrano will show up, he having vowed to drive the ham Montfleury from the stage if he dares to act again. Gerard Depardieu – never better before or since – makes one of the great entrances in cinema as Cyrano, roaring from the gods as Montfleury stomps all over the poetry on the stage. He drives him to the wings with some swashbuckling moves, throws money to the cast and then tangles with the poncey Viscount Valvert – a pawn of the boo-hiss villain of the piece, the Count de Guiche – for daring to allude to his nose. Ah yes, the protuberant proboscis that is this Achilles’ heel.
This warrior, this poet, this god amongst men, is also in love with the fair Roxanne – played here by a radiant Anne Brochet, one of those seemingly endless stream of French actresses that you would happily burn down your house for a smile from. Can you see where this is going? Can you see how this might have affected the eighteen year old, sat in the fourth row, with delusions of grandeur for his soul, but a stark awareness of his non-oil painting visage?
Perhaps you know the remainder of the plot? Christian is no dope but he gets tongue-tied around the ladies so enlists the poet Cyrano to help with the verbal gymnastics. Cyrano takes this on as a worthwhile pursuit, feeling he can never win Roxanne for himself given his physical long-comings. Gasp as Cyrano’s heart is broken twice; once as Roxanne tells him of his love for Christian, and again when Christian, thanks to the power of the poet's words, is taken in Roxanne’s loving embrace. Cheer as the mighty Cyrano fights off 100 soldiers sent to teach Liginére a lesson. Shout “Huzzar!” and throw your hat in the air as the brave Gascogne soldiers fend off the Spanish army, and even The Count is redeemed in the heat of battle. I won’t give away the ending but, even if a bizarre misfortune befell you, resulting in the removal of your tear ducts following an unfortunate childhood accident, you would still be a sobbing mess come the denouement.
On top of all that, the production is absolutely sumptuous – the French really know how to do this kind of thing – and everyone looks fantastic, but I have always been - and remain - a sucker for a floppy hat, a cape, and a well-groomed moustache. Even the subtitles were put together by no less a talent than Anthony Burgess and are, accordingly, poetry in and off themselves. But the honours must go to Depardieu – you’re cheering him one minute and in the next, you’re offering him your hankie. He was nominated for the Academy Award – and quite rightly too – but who won it that year? Jeremy Irons. Well, alright, Reversal Of Fortune was pretty good too, but it was no Cyrano!
Back to The Lighthouse. What happened to our young hero? Not much. Both the beautiful lady and I had turned away from each other as the film ended, anxious to hide our tears. Not that this display of sensitivity on my part helped, for although she was a good egg, and I’m sure she still is, where’er she might be, she told me again (and again) - if I might paraphrase Leonard Cohen - that she preferred handsome men, and for me, she was not willing to make an exception.