An erratically emotional saga of a young Russian refugee's sidetracked search for her father, Sally Potter's "The Man Who Cried" presents such a haunting and moving first act that the balance of the story seems steadily to decline.
After its flash-forward title sequence that unnecessarily reveals a pivotal moment of the last act, story proper opens in a Jewish farming village in 1927 Russia, where a beautiful little girl is playing hide-and-seek in the tall grass with her adoring father, unaware that he is about to leave for America, hoping to find work then send for his family.
The girl's life soon changes from blithe to melancholy, as she doesn't understand why her father is going away. Then her life becomes downright terrifying as the village is attacked and burned, and to save her life the girl's mother forces her to run away.
In these early scenes the film has a vivid sense of place and an even more acute atmosphere of danger and displacement. But most remarkable is the astonishing performance of 5-year-old Claudia Lander-Duke, whose wide, intelligent eyes embody total innocence and joy in her first scenes, somatic sadness and bewilderment at her father's departure, and an intense mix of fear and courage as she is engulfed and overwhelmed by war.
After this first act wraps up with the girl becoming an orphan in England (and named Suzie by adpotive parents), the film fast forwards roughly 15 years and Christina Ricci takes over the role. Ricci has Suzie's troubled-and-melancholy disposition down pat, but she seems notably vacant considering all this character has been through and doesn't have half the intensity and substance of the remarkable little Lander-Duke. As a result "The Man Who Cried" loses much of its emotional impact right then and there.
The story, however, remains interesting for a while. When she's old enough to strike out on her own, Suzie becomes a chorus girl in a Paris opera (her beautiful singing voice has been an occasional theme since the opening scenes), hoping to save enough money to go to America and begin searching for her father.
But once in Paris, Potter's direction becomes borderline pretentious, full of ostentatious visual symbolism, while elements of the plot go the Harlequin route.
Our heroine finds herself falling for Cesar (Johnny Depp at his most histrionically smoldering), an over-romanticized, sensitive, sexy gypsy (deja vu "Chocolat") who enkindles Suzie's womanhood both figuratively and literally while riding a white horse through the foggy streets in fanciful sequences, shirt unbuttoned and long hair aflow.
Of course, on the eve of the German invasion, being a Jew in love with a gypsy can be nothing but trouble.
An irritating impediment of "The Man Who Cried" is that the romance and the drama often seem insincere and overwrought because of Potter's chimerical cinematic techniques. Such dreamlike allusions worked fine in her fantastic and far less literal 1992 film "Orlando," but here they seem forced.
Yet another problem is that the supporting cast outshines Ricci and Depp, who don't give bad performances per se, but just come across as hired players in roles with half-formed personalities.
Cate Blanchett, on the other hand, is fabulously tawdry as Suzie's flamboyant fair-weather friend Lola -- an ambitious Russian dancer of questionable talent whose only interest is becoming the mistress of the opera's star, an egomaniacal Italian tenor played strongly and with seething arrogance by John Turturro.
Lola's friendship changes with the wind -- in this case the winds of war -- and when her meal ticket reveals himself to be an Axis sympathizer, she puts Suzie in more danger by revealing to Turturro that Suzie is a Jew.
Potter's grip on the film's narrative is a bit slippery, and she's too enamoured of showy irony, like the scene in which Turturro's thunderous opera performance is juxtaposed with a vague scene of soldiers routing the encampment of Cesar's gypsy family.
Such problems are not enough to ruin "The Man Who Cried," but as the film wears on, they do add up.
What is enough to ruin it is the fact that Suzie seems to forget her original goal of finding her father until an epilogue in which she flees occupied France for America and a finale that veers absurdly into Shirley Temple territory.
Run time: 100 mins
In Theaters: Friday 8th December 2000
Distributed by: Universal Focus
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 35%
Fresh: 24 Rotten: 45
IMDB: 6.2 / 10
Director: Sally Potter
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