‘Cyrano’: How the film’s costumes helped reinvent a classic tale

Written by Marianna Cerini, CNN

How do you give a visual makeover to a classic tale that’s centered around appearances? That was the question facing award-winning costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini when he began work on the latest screen adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” and he had 26 days to figure it out.

“Because of the schedule and the pandemic, I had less than a month to put together a team, pick and order the fabrics, decide what the outfits would look like before we started shooting – that’s a pretty tight timeframe for any movie. a film like ‘Cyrano’ you would usually have three or four months to prepare. But we made it work, “he said in a video interview. “And I could not be happier with the result.”

Director Joe Wright’s “Cyrano,” out today after an Oscar-qualifying one-week theatrical release in December, not only changes the setting of the famous story of unrequited love from the 17th to the 18th century, it also reimagines the title character, played by Peter Dinklage, and downsizes what’s been the fictional poet-swordsman’s most defining feature: his famously large nose.

Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr.  portray the classic love triangle of Cyrano, Roxanne and Christian in director Joe Wright's adaptation of of Edmond Rostand's 1897 play "Cyrano de Bergerac."

Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr. portray the classic love triangle of Cyrano, Roxanne and Christian in director Joe Wright’s adaptation of of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Credit: Peter Mountain

Getting rid of the prosthetic nose used in most Cyrano interpretations – and the many lines of dialogue around it – was an essential aspect of reinventing the character, said playwright Erica Schmidt, who wrote the film’s screenplay.

“My goal was for Cyrano not to articulate what it is he finds so physically unattractive about himself, and so remove not just the false nose, but any reference to it,” Schmidt said in a video interview. “I wanted the audience to make up their own idea about why he does not love himself. People project things onto one another, but my ‘hideous’ qualities might not look hideous to you. So you might think his tragic flaw is his height “Others might feel it’s his pride. It really is in the eye of the beholder.”

Cantini Parrini was enlisted to create costumes that would help interpret these changes and embrace the fact that Wright’s adaptation is a musical featuring a score by American rock band The National – requiring clothes dynamic enough to facilitate dance scenes. Wright also proposed thinking of each ensemble not just in terms of style, but as a direct extension of the characters’ personas and social ranks.

“Joe wanted the costumes to be defining elements of the story,” the Italian designer said.

Weaving that sartorial narrative, which earned him an Oscar nomination for costume design earlier this month, started in part with some 18th-century inspiration.

Costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini drew inspiration from 18th-century watercolors he'd seen in museums in London and Rome for the hues of the costumes.

Costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini drew inspiration from 18th-century watercolors he’d seen in museums in London and Rome for the hues of the costumes. Credit: Peter Mountain

In living color

The time period in which Wright chose to set “Cyrano” offered “a much lighter, vibrant time period compared to the 1600s (when the original play was set),” Cantini Parrini said. Naturally, the clothing had to reflect that atmosphere.

“The idea was to make the world of Cyrano airy, dynamic, full of movement and give a sense of emotional transparency, while capturing the essence of that particular era,” he explained. “Lightness was the ethos for the entire movie.”

With “lightness” as his watchword, Cantini Parrini drew inspiration from 18th-century watercolors he’d seen in museums in London and Rome for the hues of the costumes, and turned to silk, linen and organza for the fabrics, which he often layered one on top of the other. “I wanted to have full-bodied silhouettes that still felt ethereal,” he said. “Particularly in the case of (Cyrano’s love interest) Roxanne (whose wardrobe was designed by Jacqueline Durran).”

Cantini Parrini turned to silk, linen and organza for the costumes' fabrics, which he often layered one on top of the other.  He and his team made all the ensembles from scratch.

Cantini Parrini turned to silk, linen and organza for the costumes’ fabrics, which he often layered one on top of the other. He and his team made all the ensembles from scratch. Credit: Peter Mountain

The result was almost 800 costumes that he and his team made from scratch rather than sourcing and renting existing items from costume houses, as is standard practice for period dramas of this kind, “so that we could really show Cyrano and his universe like never before , in a way that would feel truly unique, “Cantini Parrini said.

As shooting began in the baroque city of Noto, in Sicily, they continued making clothes (“Almost as if we were a textile company from the 1700s,” Cantini Parrini joked) while production ramped up and other story elements fell into place.

Wright’s retelling of the plot remains true to the classic: Cyrano, a French army officer with a penchant for poetry, is secretly in love with the beautiful and smart Roxanne (portrayed in the film by Haley Bennett), but he fears she’ll reject him. When a handsome but inarticulate cadet, his alter-ego Christian (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.), also falls for her, Cyrano starts writing her passionate letters signed on Christian’s behalf.

Using color as a deliberate signifier of a character's social rank was central to the film's storyline, Cantini Parrini said.  Peasants and the bourgeoisie in "Cyrano" are generally seen in earthy tones.

Using color as a deliberate signifier of a character’s social rank was central to the film’s storyline, Cantini Parrini said. Peasants and the bourgeoisie in “Cyrano” are generally seen in earthy tones. Credit: Peter Mountain

Cantini Parrini said using color as a deliberate signifier of a character’s soul or social rank was central to both the film’s storyline and its overall aesthetic. “We used colors to denote everyone’s status through the film, and enhance or define each person and their dramatic needs,” he said.

As a result, Roxanne’s voluminous yet delicate gowns appear in shades of yellow, white and beige to symbolize her pureness of heart, as well as lively blues and greens to channel her indomite spirit.

Other characters, too, have their own defining palette: Nobles are dressed in pastels –including the story’s villain, old nobleman De Guiche (portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn), who appears in pink pretty much from start to finish; peasants and the bourgeoisie in earthy tones; the clergy in ivory; and the militia, of which Cyrano is part, in reds and sandy shades.

“I think through the shades of their outfits, everyone can be seen and felt by the audience,” Cantini Parrini said. “There’s a deeper connection.”

Nobles in the film are dressed in pastels - including the story's villain, De Guiche, portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn.

Nobles in the film are dressed in pastels – including the story’s villain, De Guiche, portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn. Credit: Peter Mountain

History, revised

Historical accuracy, he added, was important but not paramount. “You have to craft ensembles that the audience can understand, and that make sense for the story you’re telling. With ‘Cyrano,’ we could play around, and we did.”

Nowhere is that more evident than in the costume of Cyrano himself (and the rest of the army), which remains the same throughout the movie, save for the very last scene. “We decided that the uniform would not change, yet we still found ways to alter it by replacing the seams with buttons, so that we could adapt it to different situations,” Cantini Parrini said.

By doing so, he explained, they were able to take the sleeves off the jackets and turn them into waistcoats, shorten the skirt by buttoning it up, make it into a mantle, or take it off entirely, so that the characters could move freely in them through battle scenes and choreographic moments. “Obviously that wasn’t done in the 1700s.”

Cyrano's costume remains largely the same throughout the movie, but Cantini Parrini and his team found ways to alter it in different scenes to serve the story.

Cyrano’s costume remains largely the same throughout the movie, but Cantini Parrini and his team found ways to alter it in different scenes to serve the story. Credit: Peter Mountain

Allowing for some reinvention, the drama has a more intimate shade than the original play – though all the verbal brilliance and swashbuckling that characterize Rostand’s work are still very much there, and key to the action. Without something so openly farcical about him – the oversized nose – Cyrano (a persona vaguely inspired by real-life playwright and philosopher Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac) becomes all the more human and relatable.

“Once we take away the physical obstacle, it’s clear that Cyrano is just like us,” Schmidt said. “He feels unworthy of love, which is something we all have felt at some point.

“Ultimately, I think the idea that we could miss out on the person we love because of our own pride and insecurities is the most haunting aspect of ‘Cyrano,’ and what brings us back to the material again and again,” she said. “It exposes something universal.”

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