Sally Potter’s gift for the drama-laden visual is evident from the start of The Man Who Cried, with its main title shot of a woman drowning in a sea engulfed by flame. The scene abstractly relates to the film’s broad theme of survival in adversity, but has little direct bearing on the central story or its characters; it feels like it has been grafted on from excess footage that Potter couldn’t resist using. Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson) appears to be working here with a substantially higher budget than in her earlier films and, while this affords her the opportunity for some grand spectacle and imaginative imagery as well as the participation of a stellar cast, somewhere along the line the larger scale got away from her–she lost her discipline.
The opening sequence is in a shtetl in Russia. Fegele, a big-eyed, gap-toothed little girl in a babushka, joyfully plays with her bearded father, a cantor. The minimal dialogue is in Yiddish, and while it is subtitled, it is an indication of Potter’s skill as director that what is happening would be eminently clear even with a language barrier. Indeed, as is often the case with opera, sometimes it is best not to understand the dialogue; expressing powerful emotions in words often turns them mawkish. The father reluctantly departs, seeking opportunity in America, leaving Fegele with her grandmother. Shortly thereafter, the children of the shtetl are evacuated to save them from a pogrom.
The story follows Fegele to England where she is adopted, forced to forget her Yiddish, found to have a talent for singing, and emerges as beautiful young Suzie (Christina Ricci). Always in hopes of finding enough money to follow her father to America, Suzie lands in Paris as a chorus girl. By now the story, well told though it is, starts to seem more fantasy than reality. It is all seen from the viewpoint of Suzie, who observes those around her with a quiet canniness, born of her constant position as powerless outsider. She and her Paris roommate, Lola (Cate Blanchett), a Russian emigre, both find work with an opera company.
There Lola flirts with the tenor, Dante (John Turturro), and they begin an affair. Lola, an opportunist quick to compromise her ideals, gets the man she deserves, a vain and temperamental Fascist. Suzie has her own affair, falling in love with a smoldering gypsy (Johnny Depp, reprising his outing in Chocolat). By now, it all has gone over the top, between Blanchett’s charming, but near-campy Lola, Turturro chewing up the scenery, and Depp galloping down the Place de la Concorde–standing on the back of his white stallion.
The Man Who Cried has some magical moments and Potter intersperses the plot with wonderful music–Yiddish music, gypsy music, opera. But the film veers between drama and melodrama, between a serious theme and a sort of neo-Thirties soapy realism (there’s a pan across Blanchett’s glamorous face, tipped at a 45 degree angle, lips heavily rouged, like a 30’s movie poster). Potter reaches for big themes and grand statements, but tries to do too much in too many different tones, ultimately failing to make it all jell.
And yet, Potter never bores you and she efficiently keeps the story moving along. Who could resist Lola fantasizing herself as Esther Williams in a watery Busby Berkeley musical while John Turturro sings Bizet?Failed though it may be as serious fare, The Man Who Cried remains a guilty pleasure.