by Joshua Ray on Nov 1, 2019

Cyrano, My Love, the debut feature of French actor and playwright Alex Michalik, can best be described by repeating some frequently used critical shorthand. It’s the sort of ultralight foreign import that used to populate Blockbuster’s bargain bins; what François Truffaut called films of “a certain tendency”. These were lavish French features that he and his fellow Cahiers du Cinema writers deemed without artistic integrity, the kind that inspired his call to action in implementing la politique des auteurs.

What this rollicking approximation of an old-school screwball romantic comedy lacks in terms of deeper observations about the process of creation, it makes up for in personality and charm. Imagine Shakespeare in Love (1998) but substitute Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès here) and Cyrano de Bergerac for William Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet. This behind-the-scenes farce supposes that the inspiration for the legendary production – which has been adapted for the screen countless times and inspired the Steve Martin-starring Roxanne (1987) – was the author’s own love affair-by-proxy with his actor friend Léo Volny’s (Tom Leeb) romantic target, seamstress Jeanne d'Alcie (Lucie Boujenah).

Whether that backstory has any truth is a concern for some historian of French theater. For Michalik, who has here adapted his own play, this possible invention has laid the foundation for a complicated scenario of spurned lovers, mistaken identity, ribald backstage shenanigans, and an in-over-his-head protagonist just trying to negotiate it all in order to mount his vision. Edmond needs a hit. His previous productions seem square and outdated to turn-of-the-20th-century Parisians, where a new renaissance in artistic and cultural expression is underway. The twentysomething’s great rival, comedic playwright Georges Feydeau (played by the director himself), suggests ditching verse for prose and comedy for tragedy, notions at which the younger man immediately scoffs. He’s much too proud a poet for such lowly modes, although his wife and children might have a different opinion given their mounting debts with the local grocer.  

Enter Sarah Bernhard (Clémentine Célarié), the grande dame of the world stage -- as the film has its characters announce in one of many didactic declarations typical of lesser biopic and period pieces -- and a fan of the fledgling writer. She connects Edmond with the great comic actor, Constant Coquelin (Olivier Gourmet, in a buoyantly funny tun), who’s in his own fair share of debt to the producers of his current flop – two men who also just so happen to run a local “house of pleasure.” Working with Edmond is surely a last-ditch effort, but the seasoned performer sees the spark of youthful creativity behind the poet’s eyes. The actor and the author are given three weeks by the entrepreneurial producers to craft their pitch. The only problem is there’s only a single page written so far.

Inspired by his own efforts with Léo - feeding drippingly sweet romantic verse to the handsome himbo to sell a false version of himself to the witty and intelligent Jeanne - Edmond has his chosen subject, the poet and swordsman Cyrano, adopt a similar strategy. However, as the love letters Edmond uses to woo Jeanne for Léo begin working their way into the fictional play, their correspondence gives a little too much inspiration to the married writer. Throughout, Cyrano, My Love follows a long-standing template of farces set behind the proscenium arch, although Michalik’s contemporary work never quite reaches the zany adrenaline-to-the-heart of, say, Howard Hawks’ 1932 supreme screwball, Twentieth Century. Instead, it comes closer to a more pedestrian version of Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway (1994) by depicting the moral ground shifting beneath a creator’s feet as potential success comes knocking at their door.

Even more fruitful is the ouroboros nature of Edmond both sublimating his own pseudo-affair with Jeanne into his text and that same text then dictating his subsequent actions. Michalik doesn’t seem too concerned with these layers, however, and is content to let such ideas recede into the background, keeping his film light and tight as the events barrel towards opening night. The filmmaker’s assured and occasionally elegant camerawork ensures that the antics remain lively – characters repeatedly falling through broken trapdoors and all – before the play’s last act represents a rhetorical shift in the film, putting a further twist on celluloid adaptations of Cyrano de Bergerac. Cyrano, My Love isn’t likely to produce the resounding acclaim its subject’s first performance receives, but Michalik shows enough promise that thunderous applause could potentially be in the new filmmaker’s future.

Rating: B-