Recently, I was able to talk to acclaimed costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini about his designs for Cyrano (2021). Parinni is the designer for two Frock Flick favorites, Tale of Tales (2015) and Ophelia (2018). His style is notable for a dreamy aesthetic fused with an understanding of historical silhouettes, and Cyrano delivers on both of those fronts.
As I said in my initial review of the trailer last year, I’m a big fan of the source material and previous iterations of it on film, and I thought this film was an interesting and fresh take on it. I loved the dreamy, ethereal quality to the filmmaking and thought the costumes conveyed the feeling of floating in a beautiful dream. I even enjoyed the songs, which is saying something as I’m usually not a big fan of musicals because they tend to feel too manic. I thought the music was perfectly suited to the tone of the film, though, feeling weightless even with the inevitable tragic ending.
But enough of my thoughts! Let’s hear from the costume designer himself, who was generous enough to share his thoughts about breathing life into a fresh take on the classic story of unrequited love!
Frock Flicks: This is a story that has been performed and filmed many times over the years, yet this film manages to freshen Cyrano’s story while still remaining true to the source material. The dreamlike quality of the film is very unique, and the dreaminess comes across strongly in your costume designs. The costumes are almost like set dressing in a way, because the sets themselves are very sparse; because of this, did you feel it was important to design the costumes to support the visual weight of what the characters are thinking and feeling?
Massimo Cantini Parrini: Absolutely yes! Aesthetics in film are a very important part, it’s like music, it can thrill you in an incredible way. I have to say that this is the kind of film where aesthetics had to be exalted as much as possible in respect of history and in respect of the vision that the director and the other departments had. In the costumes I avoided all the cliches of the 1700s, I removed prints, flowers, stripes in the fabrics, I removed lace, embroidery, jewels and embellishments. I wanted to convey through my costumes, the essential form of the 1700s and not the classical heavy and baroque images. I only chose light and transparent fabrics for men and women, inspired by looking at 1700s watercolors in museums in Rome and London.
FF: How closely did you work with Joe Wright to create projects that harmonized with his vision?
MCP: I have worked with Joe on costumes a lot and Joe always loves fashion and costumes. Joe is a director with an immense visual culture, and has beautiful courage, and it’s rare to find one! We had the same vision of the film, it was an incredible thing, it has never happened to me so greatly.
FF: Can you tell us a little about your design process? How familiar were you with the source material before you started designing the costumes?
MCP: I have always studied the history of costume and I have an immense collection of vintage clothes that goes from the end of the 1600s to the ’90s of the 20th century. I have been studying clothes and collecting since I was a child. it is an immense lifelong passion. The creative process for me is always the same for every film, whether it is a vintage or contemporary. After meeting the director and reading the screenplay I need to come into the world of art and take inspiration from the past. I visit many museums, I make massive lookbooks that take inspiration from vintage images, paintings and artwork, but also contemporary fashion. Take the character Cyrano for example, Joe and I wanted his costume to be the same for the whole film but versatile so that I could change shape and appearance for every scene, I had the idea to create a uniform and by putting buttons in the place of seams, allowed us to transform the costume by unbuttoning or buttoning, removing, adding and moving elements to the costume so that it was the same but different.
FF: I noticed right away the use of sheer, floaty fabrics in the costumes, which I thought was interesting as 18th-century costumes are known for a heavier, almost upholstered look. Were there any challenges from a construction standpoint in translating the stiff look of the period into lightweight chiffons and organzas? What did you consider your biggest design challenge?
MCP: What a beautiful question! Thank you for noticing! It was the idea for the film, as I have already told you, after seeing the watercolors of the 17th century in Italian museums and in London, i wondered why that lightness and transparency could not be recreated throughout in costumes! It is a musical and has a lot of aerial shots of the choreography, so we needed the clothes to flow and move as naturally as possible. The biggest challenge for me was that of being able to recreate today the essence of the 17th century of the past that always breathes through paintings and literature. The difficulty in the design was very challenging as it’s difficult to create costumes all in silk, all structured but lightweight.
FF: The costumes for all the actors, even the extras, harmonize really well with one another; were all the costumes designed and created in-house? How many costumes were made in total?
MCP: All the costumes of the film were made only and exclusively for this film, I wanted uniqueness, I wanted everything to mix with the wonderful production design, and cinematography. I wanted the light of Sicily to pass through all the costumes, with this effect. About 750 new clothes were made for the film, and we subsequently rented very few costumes for the background only.
FF: Did COVID-19 complicate the costume construction and fitting process with the cast and crew?
MCP: It was very difficult for everyone, but the difficulty for us, outside of the standard covid restrictions that we had to follow, masks, distance etc. It was, and it is, that of not being able to try and move the costumes from one person to another as had always been the case before the pandemic. Now they have to be disinfested as soon as the trial, or the day, is finished, a nightmare! And that requires more staff to help with this additional work.
FF: My favorite costume was the gown that Roxanne wore when Christian followed her to the women’s poetry reading, which looked like a robe à la piedmontese (not a very common style seen on film!). Did you have a favorite costume to design?
MCP: I loved making all the costumes, my favorites are those of the wardrobe of De Guiche and those of the nobles of the theater including Montflery, the baroque singer, and the sheep in tulle! But the greatest satisfaction were the sisters, their robes made in light and transparent fabrics, are a mix between past and modern that I had a lot of fun thinking about and creating.
FF: Is there anything you would have done differently?
MCP: What a difficult question … I have to say that when I see a work that I have done I would change almost everything, I am never satisfied, I would continue to work on a dress and look for ideas endlessly, I seek perfection! But perfection does not exist, perfection is an invention of the human being to be satisfied, but I’m never satisfied!
FF: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about your experience designing costumes for CYRANO?
MCP: I would like the readers to pay attention to all the wonderful details of this film, from the production design, to the makeup, to the hair, to the cinematography, the magnificent interpretations of the actors, the choreography and the magnificent direction, as I always say film is a sphere, from anywhere you look at it’s always perfect!
FF: Thank you, Massimo! We really enjoyed the film and are looking forward to hearing what our readers have to say once they’ve seen it, too!
Cyrano opens today in U.S. theaters nationwide.