One hundred and fifteen years ago, Cyrano de Bergerac leapt into history. Following the opening performance of Edmond Rostand’s play on December 28, 1897, a dazzled audience obliged the cast to make forty curtain calls. The following night, government officials came to the theater and awarded Rostand with the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. A rapid decision, but hardly hasty: Rostand’s swashbuckling hero, embodying that most elusive of qualities, le panache, has ever since belonged to France’s pantheon of immortal literary creations.
The play’s anniversary arrives in France at an apt moment: the era’s most famous Cyrano, Gérard Depardieu, has just loudly quit his native France for Belgium. Did the manner of his leaving thrum with panache or a rather less heroic quality? This is just one of many issues the French are now frantically debating: To a degree perhaps unimaginable in our country, the controversy fuses politics and poetry, history and myth, ideology and ideals.
Depardieu’s dramatic exit stage left occurs at a time that resembles the moment Cyrano first stepped onto the French stage. Fin-de-siècle France was rocked by a series of economic and political crises. With the nation mired in an economic recession, demagogic politicians channeled the desperation of French workers against Italian and Jewish immigrants, while the Socialists and conservatives battled over the nation’s future.
At the same time, Germany and Great Britain were busy maintaining their reputation as France’s traditional enemies: the humiliating loss to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was still fresh, while Great Britain was winning the race for imperial conquest. The basso continuo to these seemingly endless crises was the Dreyfus Affair, which pitted France against itself over the very definition and vocation of the Republic.
Yet, this deeply divided nation immediately united in common adoration over Cyrano. Here was a hero for all of France: a man who recited rhymed couplets while dueling a foe — and running him through just as he reached the poem’s climax; a man who gives his life for his nation and his great love, Roxana; a man who not just sacrificed his life to great ideals, but did so with that “thing unstained, unsullied by the brute/Broken nails of the world.” In a word, with panache.
And un pif, or schnozz, nearly as long as his sword. In a majestic and hilarious speech, Cyrano memorably challenges an aristocrat who had clumsily mocked his nose, by riffing a series of variations on his “Gothic perch” for birds. But what is perhaps most majestic, though more elusive, is that Rostand was an ardent Dreyfusard: a supporter of the French Jewish captain who had been falsely accused of treason. Though Rostand himself never made the association, notes the historian Ruth Harris, it is intriguing that the attribute he gives his hero — one Cyrano overcomes through integrity and intelligence — is the one so central to anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Fast-forward from fin-de-siècle France in 1897 to, well, debut-de-siècle France in 2012, yet the stage setting seems the same. The nation, reeling from another great recession, is again sinking in an economic bog; relations are increasingly testy with a powerful Germany and isolationist Britain; demagogues again stokes fears of immigrants (in this case, Arabs rather than Jews); and while Socialists and conservatives seem equally powerless in resolving these problems, they have succeeded in creating a different affair, but one that involves not Dreyfus, but Depardieu.
Two weeks ago, France’s most beloved actor decided to decamp to Belgium. The reasons had little to do with honor, less with love, and much with income taxes. The Socialist government of François Hollande, confronting a stalling economy, festering unemployment, and a dodgy credit rating, enacted a temporary tax on France’s wealthiest citizens: a 75% marginal tax on yearly incomes exceeding one million euros. While the Socialists depicted the tax as a “patriotic duty,” a number of critics — not coincidentally, many of them among France’s one percent — denounced the tax as unjust.
When Depardieu’s move to Belgium, which boasts a less punishing tax rate, became public, the government’s reaction was immediate. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault dismissed the move as “shabby,” while his minister of culture, Aurélie Filippetti, no doubt inspired by Rostand’s rhetoric, declared straight-faced that Depardieu was “deserting the battlefield in the midst of the war against the economic crisis.” The Socialist spokesperson, David Assouline, concluded Depardieu “is playing the worst role of his career.”
As Assouline’s remark reveals, the Depardieu Affair has blurred the lines between film and politics. Over the years, Depardieu has left his mark on the French imagination not just as Cyrano, but as a legion of other republican icons: Obelix, the massive defender of Gaul against Roman imperialism; Maheu, the mammoth miner in Zola’s Germinal, defending the French worker against corporate greed; Jean Valjean, Hugo’s monumental embodiment of the French people resistance to the forces of tyranny; and Danton in Andresz Wajda’s film of the same name, portraying the tragic revolutionary figure who rivals Cyrano in his eloquent fidelity to human values.
As a result, when Depardieu, wounded by the Socialist reactions, threatened to return his French passport, the shock was seismic. But it should not have been surprising, for there is more than one Depardieu. As the film scholar Pierre Maillot observes, there is also Depardieu’s image of the “voyou,” or thug, projected on countless screens over the years. From “Loulou” to “Going Places,” Depardieu has played characters hostile to law and convention. This particular Depardieu, moreover, has bled into the real Depardieu. His clashes with the public are legion: it is as if he had taken to heart Cyrano’s boast: “To displease is my chief pleasure.”
It is against these opposing types that we need to place Depardieu’s decision to play Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Abel Ferrara’s upcoming biopic. Depardieu despises the man who, once seemingly destined to become France’s president, has since been revealed to be a vile sexual predator. Describing DSK as “smug and arrogant,” Depardieu declared: “It is because I dislike him that I am going to play him.” Yet a simple glance at the two men suggests that Depardieu, who shares with DSK the same Rabelaisian girth, began playing some version of the fallen Socialist politician long before Ferrara’s film. There are the instances where he has insulted women reporters and actors in public, not to mention relieve himself in front of an airplane stewardess. (Let us leave to one side his antics with foreign despots and Vladimir Putin’s offer of citizenship.)
Is all of this panache? Or, instead, is it simply punk? Is it possible that Cyrano was greater than his nose, but Depardieu (and, indeed, DSK) seem to be less than their bellies? For a nation immersed as deeply in film as France — indeed, one criticism leveled at Depardieu is that he is betraying the state-subsidized film industry that made him a star — the confusion between these two screen images is understandable. That both one and the other have equally powerful claims on the French imagination at this critical moment in the nation’s history is, as Cyrano might say, tragique.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life” (Cornell University Press, 2010).