Man Who Cried, The
An epic melodrama of good vs. evil masquerading as a high-minded art film, Sally Potter’s latest effort, The Man Who Cried, is, on its surface, probably most notable for being another onscreen pairing of the always-photogenic Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci. In a press junket I unfortunately attended for Sleepy Hollow a couple of years ago, I got to hear Depp remark how odd it was to have such a young romantic co-star, but apparently it wasn’t too weird; they’re back in each other’s arms in The Man Who Cried, and unlike in the overbearing, clunky Sleepy Hollow, they actually generate some chemistry. And while the film is mostly effective only in its opening half hour and closing scenes, none of which feature Depp, their uncharacteristic pairing relationship works because it seems frightfully premature. Their faces never quite match up, but that’s what makes them such a mesmeric screen couple.
Ricci turns in one of her best performances as an orphaned Russian Jew named Fegele, who flees her shtetl as a very young girl and winds up in foster care in England, only to be re-christened Suzie. (The character is played as a child by the charismatic youngster Claudia Lander-Duke, who has no dialogue but creates a fascinating character with her face alone.) Raised with none of the orthodoxy of her birthplace, Suzie’s only connection to her heritage is a worn, faded photograph of her beloved father, a hardworking peasant who made the painful decision to abandon his family in the hopes that a trek to America might bring him the prosperity needed to make a better life for his daughter. Existing as only the background story for The Man Who Cried, these early scenes are a solid foundation that the later portions of the film don’t quite earn. While no doubt a wholly serious film, the somber simplicity of the initial material, highlighted with breathtaking style by master cinematographer Sacha Vierny (who‘s worked extensively with Alain Resnais and Peter Greenaway) and aided memorably by the brief, commanding performance by Oleg Yankovsky as Suzie’s father, is far more captivating than the imperialistic and inevitable avenues the film takes as it progresses.
Moving to Paris after graduating from school, the quiet, introspective Suzie befriends an outgoing, very blonde dancer named Lola (Cate Blanchett, playing to the peanut gallery with a heavy accent that inadvertently tops Sigourney Weaver‘s Russkie parody in Heartbreakers) and the two conspire to hit the big time. Their opportunity comes in the form of a rendezvous with Italian Opera sensation Dante Dominio, with whom Lola begins a teasing affair. Dante is the guest star of a local theatrical company, and it is during rehearsals that chorus-member Suzie meets her man of choice: a quiet, introspective Gypsy called Cesar, played by Depp, who is even more luxuriously gritty and downtrodden than the Gypsy Depp recently played in Chocolat. Much of the film’s second half contrasts these two relationships as the foundations for World War II are laid, and even piles on the contrivances as Dante, sympathetic to the persecution of Gypsies, Jews, and others on the Nazis’ list of undesirables, discovers Suzie’s secret origins and threatens to turn her in.
Had I known that The Man Who Cried was essentially a Holocaust movie before I saw it, chances are I would have passed it up; there’s nothing more inconsequential at this cultural moment than another film that deals with the widespread persecutions that took place in Europe in the ‘40s, because such extreme overexposure to the sacred subject matter in the several years since Schindler’s List has nearly rendered it passé (Spielberg’s masterpiece should have been the last film produced on the Holocaust). But with a new hit movie about the subject striking up a fuss every couple of years (Life is Beautiful in 1998, Sunshine in 2000), why would filmmakers give up on such a potentially lucrative topic? The Man Who Cried is thankfully not nearly as odious as the upcoming Czech import Divided We Fall (another skewed vision of the Holocaust, this time from the viewpoint of a man who hides an escaped Jew in his pantry, with impeccably chaotic results that verge on imitating screwball comedy), but it certainly breaks no new ground. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Potter could have made the entire movie about Fegele’s journey to England, her growth and education in a displaced culture and eventual trip to America in search of her father and her roots, without including the Holocaust or World War II at all.
Such wasted opportunities are not uncommon when dealing with Potter’s films, which are, by and large, some of the most insufferably self-satisfied and thick-headed entries in the recent landscape of art cinema. Orlando was a lot of fancy costumes in search of a point; The Tango Lesson was lifeless and uninspired as if such concerns as a point were completely nonexistent, perhaps the reason I could only stomach about a half hour of it before running for the exit. The Man Who Cried is a much different story. While certainly taking on a downward slant in its second half, the film is always interesting in a morbid and curious sort of way, due to the encouraging evidence that Potter has abandoned her so-called experimental tropes and is now interested in telling a story. Even if her story is lackluster, her knack for creating rich imagery becomes beneficial--there’s not a moment in the film’s 97-minute entirety that isn’t rewarding to look at, and when the images click with the themes of the plot, the result is compelling and often moving. There are no doubts that some people find Potter’s newfound interest in developing a full narrative perplexing and disappointing (the film was the victim of some awful advance buzz, and has received scant praise since its opening), but to the minds of those who look for more than pretentious dallying around, this new vein in her work is welcome.
Case in point: Instead of casting herself as the heroine of her film, as she did in The Tango Lesson to excruciating results, she’s wisely tapped Ricci, who has never been quite as mysterious onscreen as she is in The Man Who Cried. Potter’s usage of visual cues (sharply contrasting Lola’s bright over-blonde hair with Suzie’s dark locks) suits the actress well, and though she’s never displayed any trouble with dialogue, it’s her long silences in The Man Who Cried that speak the loudest. Suzie has the potential to become a mythological type of heroine--secretly Jewish, in love with a Gypsy, and mostly helpless--but Ricci provides the character with an inner strength that refutes stereotype and maintains individuality. It’s almost insufficient when she begins to open up and reveal her heart to her Gypsy beau, because the dialogue can‘t give her room to create the depth that her face does in many solitary moments.
The scenes with Suzie and the Gypsies are among the film’s most banal (second only to the scenes that reveal Turturro’s opera singer as a anti-Semite); when she visits their camp, and is introduced to their customs in a bout of proud song-swapping, the film’s sanctimony is almost unbearable. But Ricci and Depp are jointly buoyant, and keep the heavy-handed material afloat. Suzie’s relationship with Cesar gives the film its iniquitous coming-of-age trimmings, but both actors keep it fresh by refusing to overdo the melodramatic influences that hang over the entire production. They’re able to maintain a semblance of innocence, even though anyone watching the film has been swamped with the horrors of that time. If nothing else, their relationship is worth watching only for the final scene between them, which provides the film with its title. In the end there is no such thing as innocence, but Depp’s final eye-opening gives a hope for reclaiming a bit of that lost virtue. It’s a moment that makes you feel, had the film not been about the Holocaust like I previously proposed, he could have easily come along for the ride as well.