Cyrano De Bergerac (1619-1655) was one of those figures who transcended their own life to become a legend. In his case, he became a legend about a big nose, and a big personality. But he also became a legend – thanks to the famous play written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand – that makes us think about the nature of beauty, and how we find it. Is it in the words we speak, or in the prettiness of our smiles? What is it we most desire, in a partner and for ourselves: good looks, or that indefinable quality known as a great personality?
It’s a subject that has an uneasy relationship with cinema. Film often relies fairly heavily on the appeal of the pretty face to sell tickets, and is often about face value, and instantly liking what we see. Visually attractive settings and people draw in an audience. But Cyrano De Bergerac is all about asking us to look beyond appearances, and to see worth in the connection that two people make that has nothing to do with their faces or bodies. Has the story ever really been done faithfully?
Well, there have been many screen incarnations of the French poet-warrior in question, dating back to 1900. Gerard Depardieu played him with panache (of course) in 1990, using an amazing translation from the original play by Anthony Burgess. Steve Martin had made a version only a few years earlier with Roxanne, in 1987, moving the action to present-day Washington State, and that is one of those comedic updates of a classic story that really works.
But perhaps my favourite modern screen comedy based on Cyrano is The Truth About Cats And Dogs (1996). Directed by Michael Lehman and written by Audrey Wells, it changes the famous hero to a heroine, and in the process raises some really interesting questions about the pressure to be beautiful when we are surrounded by superficial sex-appeal. It also dares to do something you don’t find often in film; it makes the friendship of the two main female characters as important as the romantic plotline.
Janeane Garofalo plays Abby Barnes, a radio show host who deals with phone-in questions about the wellbeing of domestic pets. Abby loves the radio and is not too fond of her own appearance, believing that all men really want is a tall slim blonde to look at rather than someone to talk to. Her friend Noelle (Uma Thurman) is that quintessential tall slim blonde. A model by profession, she has no fear of the camera, but ask her to hold a conversation or eat a slice of cake and she goes to pieces. They both long for what the other has. “Together we make the perfect woman,” Noelle muses as they examine beauty products in a department store. “No, you and I combined make the perfect political prisoner,” Abby tells her. ‘What we do really well is act self-righteous and starve.’
With the dry, tongue-in-cheek tone established, Brian (Ben Chaplin) comes into the picture. He speaks to Abby as part of her radio show, and falls for the voice. But through a series of misunderstandings he comes to think that Noelle is the face that matches that voice, and as both women find him attractive, a tension develops. Who would Brian choose, if he knew the truth? When he’s on the phone to Abby they have so much in common (and also have great phone sex in a brilliant scene that establishes how intimacy springs naturally from honest communication), but when he sees Noelle he seems stunned by how beautiful she is.
The plotline may seem traditional, but it’s the tweaks to this well-worn story that makes it shine. For instance, it recognises that maybe it shouldn’t be Brian’s right to choose between them, and the ending always delights me, as well as giving Uma Thurman one of her best screen moments. She takes matters into her own hands, and when she tells Brian unselfconsciously that the book he gave her is too intellectual for her and she prefers a straightforward mystery or romance, I want to cheer for her ability to stand up for what she is without shame or embarrassment.
Another tweak that appeals is that fact that the two female friends make the decision not to fight over Brian. Their relationship is important to them, and one of the ways the film shows this is by having their friendship grow from acquaintanceship early on. They live next door to each other, but its only when Abby intervenes in a quarrel Noelle is having with her boyfriend at the time that a friendship is established.
Many rom-coms use close friends as a way to give the main character an opportunity to express their feelings while also providing comic relief at the same time – this can lead to some fairly idiosyncratic ‘best friends’ in rom-com land that you really wouldn’t choose to share your deepest thoughts with in real life. Spike with his inability to take phone messages in Notting Hill (1999) or Marie with her rolodex of men in When Harry Met Sally (1989) come to mind. But you believe in the unlikely friendship between Abby and Noelle, just as you believe in their own personal issues. It’s not enough to simply win the attention of Brian. They have to work out how to be themselves, and have good relationships with both friends and lovers.
All of which sounds a bit on the deep side, but The Truth About Cats And Dogs pulls that great trick of discussing a serious issue with a lightness of tone and a witty voice. There are lots of one-liners that get a laugh, and all three lead actors are really good in it. Ben Chaplin in particular manages to portray the usually thankless job of the not-bright-enough-to-work-it-out love interest with style and heart. This was one of Chaplin’s first films; after this he went on to give strong performances in diverse films such as The Thin Red Line (1998) and Birthday Girl (2001), and he played Cinderella’s father in Branagh’s live action version in 2015.
There is, I think, an inherent unfairness at the heart of all versions of Cyrano De Bergerac. Cyrano may have a big nose, but Roxanne (the object of his affection) is never less than luminous to behold. How else could she inspire such poetry? But often, as a consequence, she is less than fleshed out as a person. It is true that Ben Chaplin is certainly far from ugly (and Janeane Garofalo is also not exactly unpleasant to look upon either). The Truth About Cats and Dogs doesn’t overcome that problem, but it does find a clever way to make it irrelevant. It gives all three of the main characters enough screen time for us to get over what they look like and to get to know their distinct personalities instead. Brian sums it up best with this speech: “You know how someone’s appearance can change the longer you know them? How a really attractive person, if you don’t like them, can become more and more ugly, whereas someone you might not even have noticed… can become the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.”
From writing long letters to having amazing phone sex, Cyrano De Bergerac‘s story finds new ways for lovers to find each other without being sucked in by superficial elements, and I wonder where it will turn up next. In the age of social media there’s plenty of room for a Cyrano to fake a Twitter account or airbrush Instagram in order to set up a new age of romantic misunderstandings. But until those versions come along, I recommend going back and revisiting The Truth About Cats And Dogs. Rarely has the big screen managed to make love look less about how great we appear in close-up.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.