Pride, Panache, and Paradox in Cyrano
***Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the film Cyrano and for the play on which it’s based.***
Something’s missing from Joe Wright’s otherwise sumptuous musical film Cyrano. No, I’m not talking about the nose.
Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac1 is my favorite play, so you can well believe that I watched this new version like a hawk, alert to any and all modifications. The change in the nose was, of course, impossible to miss. If you too are familiar with the original play, you know that it was Cyrano’s enormous nose that made him too self-conscious to woo his love, Roxane. However, in Wright’s film, Peter Dinklage plays the lead, and his dwarfism becomes the trait that makes the character hesitant to speak up.
It’s a significant adjustment for anyone who knows the play well. But amid all the other changes in this version—adding musical numbers, truncating or cutting speeches, updating the language here and there—it becomes just one more change and manages to work fine in the context.
The missing element I’m talking about is a little harder to spot, unless you know to look for it. It has to do with the fact that this Cyrano doesn’t wear a hat.
The white plume on Cyrano’s hat in Rostand’s play isn’t just a fashion statement. It symbolizes a state of mind, a whole way of living. That plume is, for him, “one thing without stain, unspotted from the world, in spite of doom mine own.” In the original French, he calls it his “panache,” and ever since the play premiered in 1897, that word has been used to refer to the kind of breezy, unflappable confidence that Rostand’s heroic warrior-poet shows in all matters, except matters of the heart.
This confidence stems from the character’s stubborn independence and integrity, his refusal to participate in the incessant flattery and compromise that make up his 17th-century world, even when giving in just a little would make life infinitely easier and more comfortable for him. This integrity, for me, is what makes Cyrano most lovable and memorable. It marks him as a timeless hero, standing up for his beliefs with unfailing courage and wit, even when the cost seems impossibly high. And this integrity also sets up the paradox at the heart of the story: Even though Cyrano deceives Roxane—writing love letters that another man will use to win her, in a misguided attempt to make her happy—we remember him as a man of honor and truth.
Joe Wright and screenwriter Erica Schmidt don’t eliminate this element entirely. We get tantalizing glimpses of Cyrano’s idealism—for instance, we see him turn down a domineering nobleman’s offer to become his patron and show his work to the right people, because the right people would want to tinker with that work before presenting it to the public. And we hear snippets of Cyrano’s famous “No thank you” speech—a favorite of mine—which in the original play reads in part:
What would you have me do?
Seek for the patronage of some great man,
And like a creeping vine on a tall tree
Crawl upward, where I cannot stand alone?
No thank you! Dedicate, as others do,
Poems to pawnbrokers? Be a buffoon
In the vile hope of teasing out a smile
On some cold face? No thank you! Eat a toad
For breakfast every morning? Make my knees
Callous, and cultivate a supple spine,—
Wear out my belly grovelling in the dust?
No thank you!
But other examples of this fiery independence are downplayed or cut altogether. Even the climactic scene from the play, in which we find that Cyrano has been physically attacked for satirizing someone powerful, is altered so that he’s suffering from other causes. And interestingly, instead of making a final speech about his panache, this Cyrano laments his pride.
Mind you, he’s not wrong to do so. As Rostand acknowledges in the original play, panache and pride are two sides of the same coin. “I am too proud to be a parasite,” Cyrano explains in the speech I’ve cited. Cyrano’s fear and his pride and his independence are all inextricably bound together, his vices the shadow of his virtues. It’s a brilliant depiction of the conflict in every human heart, as the same qualities that raise us up one day can lead to our downfall the next.
I don’t suspect Wright and Schmidt of any nefarious motives in their treatment of Cyrano. It’s clear they chose to concentrate on romance instead of exploring depths of character, and that romance they portray absolutely beautifully, with gorgeous visuals and lush orchestrations and every other tool at their disposal enhancing the grandeur and pathos of the love story. And perhaps this is in fact why they ended up emphasizing pride over panache—because it was more relevant to the romance.
Panache is what keeps Rostand’s Cyrano going, what lets his spirit survive and even thrive in the roughest of circumstances, but pride, ultimately, is what keeps him from the love of his life. It’s not a malicious or a malignant pride—it’s born of his one deep insecurity and his desperate desire to keep his dignity in Roxane’s eyes—but nonetheless, as pride will do, it destroys his chance for happiness.
Ultimately, despite the missing white plume and the occasionally jarring modernized language, I liked this version of Cyrano. I wasn’t sure at first that I would, but in the end I couldn’t help it. What the film does well, it does incredibly well, creating an atmosphere so richly romantic that it simply sweeps the viewer away. And even that altered ending, though it threw me at first, was satisfying in its own way. I would recommend the film—but then I would recommend going on to read the play and/or watch one of the earlier film versions (the 1990 French version is particularly good).
After all, in the 21st century as in the 17th, we’re all tempted sometimes to toady, to grovel, to compromise—just the tiniest bit!—with what we know to be wrong. Let’s face it—most of us could use a little panache.
1All quotations from Cyrano de Bergerac are from the Brian Hooker translation (Bantam Classic Edition, 2004).