BLACK TIGHTS (Terence Young, 1960)

Consisting of abbreviated versions of four choreographies by Roland Petit, Un deux trois quatre! ou Les collants noirs is a spectacular widescreen entertainment from France. Petit himself takes the lead role in the feature’s most brilliant modern ballet filmlet: Cyrano de Bergerac (1959), from Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, set in the seventeenth century. Some of it is ingenious: between Cyrano and an opponent, a sword duel as ballet; more complex and surprisingly compellingly antiwar, a battle between two armies. But, of course, the central love story is most engaging. Cyrano, who is ugly by dint of a whopping big nose (actually, Petit is close to adorable), secretly loves cousin Roxane (beauteous, elegant Moira Shearer, the star of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, 1948), who loves Cyrano’s best friend, handsome Christian, who loves Roxane. Cyrano, a poet, assists tongue-tied Christian by ghost-writing Christian’s love letters to Roxane, which cement her love for Christian—or, if you will, Cyrano, without her realizing it, since the words bare his, not Christian’s, heart and soul.
     In this version, though, the muteness, pantomime, music and dance divest the action of the play’s words words words, creating a dreamlike domain, one upshot of which is that now Cyrano and Christian emerge as aspects of a single character; Christian is Cyrano’s projection: the good-looking guy he would love to be, in order to lasso Roxane’s love. Christian’s self-sacrificial suicide, once he learns of Cyrano’s love for Roxane (this suicide is more blatant than in the play), symbolizes Cyrano’s defeatism, his acceptance that Christian’s beauty—a dream—cannot overturn his own ugliness in Roxane’s eyes. Wounded in a street assault fifteen years after Christian’s death, Cyrano dies during his weekly visit to Roxane (ostensibly to share their endless memories of Christian)—a death that coincides with her finally learning of Cyrano’s great love for her.
     Thus, Petit’s version is much more burrowing and interior than Rostand’s. Its centerpieces are two passionate dances. The first might be described, I hope not too cleverly, as a dance-for-two in which there are three participants: Roxane, Christian, Cyrano. This staggeringly complex, moody, mysterious dance, theatrically enrobed in darkness, perfectly expresses the romantic “triangle,” with Cyrano achingly, fluently dancing “with” Roxane, with her in such a swoon of love (for Christian) that she does not notice him (Cyrano), pushing him out of “their” dance, with Christian quickly (and less fluently) taking Cyrano’s place, becoming the one dance partner that Roxane sees. The trio also comes together in “layers,” for instance, with Roxane in front, facing us, Cyrano behind her, and Christian behind him: theatrical, kaleidoscopic arrangements, highlighting hands, legs, toes, costumes—and all in continual, intricate motion. The fates of these three souls are inextricably bound.
     The other great dance is Cyrano’s dance of death. Petit alternates between low-energy indications of Cyrano’s expiration and thunderbursts of Cyrano’s lifetime of passion for Roxane. At death’s hem, there is nothing left for Cyrano to hide. Cyrano’s final roll onto the ground is heart-piercing.
     Petit is a wonderful Cyrano, in his speechlessness substituting sorrowful retreats and looks, as well as his dance moves, for the character’s harsh wit in the Rostand play. Deuil en 24 heures (1953), though, comes to life only at the end at Maxim’s, with Petit’s dancing again the principal attraction despite Cyd Charisse’s high-spirited appearance, in the central role, in a widow’s black dress. Perhaps the most interesting, and rewarding, aspect of this particular filmlet is its score, which draws upon Charles Chaplin melodies. Another filmlet, La croqueuse de diamants (1950), is even more trivial, but the remaining one is Carmen (1949), with Petit’s Don José oddly, and strikingly, reminiscent of the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919)—that is, once Carmen has manipulated José into killing and discarded him. Zizi Jeanmaire’s cold blank of a Carmen, however, makes it impossible to understand her attraction. But Bizet’s music is, as always, glorious, and an ensemble dance involving chairs is nifty.
     It is for its Cyrano, then, that this film lives and, really, is essential viewing. Whether on VHS or DVD, the copies available in the U.S. are extremely faded, doubtless doing little justice to the reportedly vivid color cinematography by Henri Alëkan. There is another unfortunate matter to note: Maurice Chevalier’s presence, not merely introducing each filmlet (which would be bad enough) but also intruding as voiceover when the filmlet is underway. In All Movie Guide, Hal Ericksen insists that Chevalier performs the identical function in the original French film, but Patrick Bensard, of the Cinémathèque française, and a friend of Petit, insists that neither Chevalier nor anyone else disfigured the film with cornball chatter. All this was apparently edited in for American yahoos.
     Directorial credit is given to a Brit: Terence Young. I’m not sure what he contributed—if anything.

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