A scene from Cyrano de Bergerac
At their most eloquent, languages are amongst the most beautiful of creations.
There are many examples, surely, and amongst the gems would undoubtedly be Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in its many interpretations. (Steve Martin’s Roxanne might be the odd one out, though, but that’s only my opinion.)
I saw the 1990 movie version by Jean-Paul Rappeneau and starring Gérard Depardieu and Anne Brochet, and it left an indelible mark in me as to how something so utterly unintelligible can yet be so beautiful.
The movie was entirely in French and since the only words I know are Merci, Mademoiselle and Monsieur, I had to depend on the English subtitles throughout the two hour and 15 minutes' duration.
In truth, it mattered little, as the triple transition of hearing, reading and translating the poetic renditions didn’t jar.
French flowed smoothly to English and on to comprehension. In fact, the only other time I experienced a similar repeat was in Japan .
Cyrano de Bergerac is a tragicomedy about a Parisian poet/swordsman/soldier who fell in love with his beautiful cousin but held back by his grotesquely exaggerated big nose.
He found a way to express his feelings after becoming an inadvertent intermediary between a dashing soldier in Christian de Neuvillette and Roxane.
Of course the story does not end in typical fairy tale endings which the Americans are so fond of churning.
The movie depicted Cyrano as very adept in using his eloquence and rapier sharp wit in battles as well as romance. The scene where he sparred – using words and a sword - with an aristrocrat who challenged him by insulting his large nose was an early highlight in the level of poetry that would follow.
Don’t take my word for it. Try to get a copy and judge it yourselves.
In the meantime, I leave you snippets of what you could expect. They are either said by Monsieur Cryano or Mademoiselle Roxane. (Quotes courtesy of Bookrags.com with thanks.)
Cyrano: And what is a kiss, specifically? A pledge properly sealed, a promise seasoned to taste, a vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip, a rosy circle drawn around the verb "to love."
A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear, infinity captured in the bee's brief visit to a flower, secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven, the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover's lip: 'Forever.'
Roxane: Why else would you concoct such a delicious revenge? It must be a gesture of love.
Cyrano (Speaking in the shadows on behalf of Christian)
Your white gown swathed in the blue-black mantle of night. I am only a voice, and you are a point of light. I may have spoken Beautifully to you in the past-
Roxane (thinking its Christian who is speaking): You know you have-
Cyrano: Because I have been forced to speak through-
Roxane: Through what?
Cyrano: Through the whirlwind which your eyes stir up inside me. But now, in this blessed darkness, I feel I am speaking to you for the first time.
(This is a particularly heart rending scene as at the end of the “session” Christian is welcomed into the lady’s chamber leaving Cyrano behind.)
Cyrano (in a battlefield): There. There is our soul. The same reed, the same fingers which have piped us into combat, call us softly home, in our thoughts. This is no longer the shrill call to attack, it is every shepherd who ever inhabited our land, whispering his sheep to fold. Listen. It is your hillside, your earth, your forest - your younger brother, suntanned under his red woolen cap. It is the green solitude of nights you spent beside the Sordogne. Listen my countrymen. It is our country calling.
Roxane: Every woman needs a little madness in her life..
Cyrano to Roxane: You're as casual about death as if it were the theatre.
All quotes are from the original play as translated by English novelist John Anthony Burgess Wilson who managed to brilliantly maintain its symphonic and lyrical rhythm.
Note: Rostand based his playwright on Parisian poet Hector Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619 to 1655) and the play also introduced the word panache to the English language.