The delightful, buoyantly performed period comedy “Cyrano, My Love” ricochets from backstage to onstage to offstage — and beyond — as it recounts a largely fictionalized origin story of the most enduring French play of all time, “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
This fanciful piece, written and directed by Alexis Michalik, based on his popular play “Edmond,” owes more than a passing debt to “Shakespeare in Love,” among many other stage-centric films, while staking its own claim as a brisk, funny, sneakily poignant love letter to words, plays, playwrights and actors.
Set mainly in 1897 Paris, the movie swirls around poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand (a nimble Thomas Solivérès), who, at 29, hasn’t written anything new in two years. His last play was a fusty thing called “The Distant Princess” that starred iconic stage actress Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié, enjoyably grand) and quickly tanked.
Times are tough for the beleaguered Rostand, who’s trying to provide for worried wife Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing) and their two young children in costly Paris while struggling to reignite his creative mojo. Meantime, his rival, the farcical playwright Georges Feydeau (Michalik), is the toast of the town — something of which he’s happy to remind Rostand.
Suddenly, though, a giddy series of events involving renowned oddball actor Constant Coquelin (a wonderful Olivier Gourmet); a cultured cafe owner (Jean-Michel Martial) with a fortuitously stocked library; Rostand’s handsome, if slightly dense, actor-friend, Léo (Tom Leeb); the new object of Léo’s affection, pretty costumer Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah); a pair of dubious Corsican investors (Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni); and much else combine to get Rostand writing again: a new play (in verse!) loosely based on the adventures of 17th century French writer Cyrano de Bergerac.
Before you can say “Let’s put on a show!” a theater is booked; a cast, featuring Coquelin as Cyrano, with his protuberant nose, and Léo as love-struck cadet Christian, is assembled; and an opening date is set. All that’s needed is, uh, the play, which Rostand ends up frantically writing as rehearsals barrel along. He eventually churns out (in three weeks!) a five-act romantic tragicomedy that’s inspired in part by his own dizzyingly unfolding world.
As if penning the play weren’t nerve-wracking enough (Rostand is seemingly also directing), there’s an amusing merry-go-round of backstage tumult conspiring to upend the production at every turn. This includes the volatility of the diva-esque Maria (Mathilde Seigner), a prostitute-turned-actress installed by the aforementioned Corsican backers (she was mistress to both) as leading lady Roxanne; the wooden stage stylings of Coquelin’s hapless — and pivotally virginal — actor-son, Jean (Igor Gotesman); Coquelin’s legally consequential feud with another theater’s management plus his further financial issues; costume troubles; and, later on — in full “Noises Off” fashion — a curiously placed trap door.
But it’s the semi love triangle comprised of Rostand, Léo and Jeanne that spins out in twisty, unplanned ways, giving the story its charmingly stirring, if at times morally shaky, romantic center and supplying crucial fodder for Rostand’s evolving play.
Inspiring what becomes perhaps “Cyrano de Bergerac’s” most familiar and oft-reworked conceit, the eloquent Rostand secretly provides the words that tongue-tied hunk Léo uses to woo the lovely Jeanne (“Romeo and Juliet” didn’t corner the market on amorous balcony scenes), a ruse that develops into a flurry of passionate letter-writing between Rostand (for Léo) and Jeanne. The ink will hit the fan in more ways than one as the upright Rostand’s devotion to his increasingly leery wife gets a workout.
Ultimately, “Cyrano’s” opening night performance comes crashing together, portrayed here in a rafter-packed, lushly rendered succession of highlights that’s peppered with no small amount of close calls, fun surprises and valiant efforts.
It’s no spoiler to report that Rostand’s work proves a smash: The actual opening night show famously received a two-hour standing ovation. The rich emotional quotient of the film’s finale, especially as the author takes the stage in one of many raucous curtain calls, should send viewers out on a high.
The movie, shot in the Czech Republic, is visually splendid as Michalik and cinematographer Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci’s gliding, swooping, sweeping cameras busily capture production designer and co-art-director (with Gilles Iscan) Franck Schwarz’s sumptuous, lovingly wrought re-creation of 1890s Paris. Thierry Delettre’s fine costumes and the warm score by Romain Trouillet also deserve a shout-out. Excellent use of Ravel’s “Boléro” as well.
Be sure to stay through the closing-credits sequence, which includes vintage and more recent clips of the many actors — Coquelin, Claude Dauphin, José Ferrer, Gérard Depardieu and others — who have played Cyrano onstage and in film, plus tintype photos of several of the film’s actual characters.
Rated: R, for brief sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 18, Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles