When Cesar met Susie
Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried is a deliberate, slightly ponderous drama of individuals caught in the heedless tide of world events. It’s the story of a Jewish girl named Fegele, whose father leaves the Russian hamlet where they live in 1927 for America, promising to send for her someday. Instead, when a pogrom sweeps through the country, Fegele ends up in England, adopted by staid foster parents, renamed Suzie and forbidden to speak or sing in her native Yiddish.
In 1938, as war gathers in Europe, Suzie (now played by Christina Ricci) goes to work as a showgirl in Paris, still hoping to earn the money to go to America and find her father. She is befriended by Lola (Cate Blanchett), a worldly Russian expatriate who catches the eye of Italian opera star Dante Dominio (John Turturro). Soon Lola lands jobs for Suzie and herself in Dante’s opera company and wangles herself into Dante’s bed. Not that it takes much wangling; Dante is God’s self-proclaimed gift to women as well as the world of opera. He’s also a Fascist, and when the Germans take Paris he wastes no time denouncing Suzie as a Jew. His motives are twofold: Suzie not only rejects his uncouth advances, but she seems, to his disgust, to actually prefer the company of Cesar (Johnny Depp), a gypsy earning a few francs working as an extra in the opera company.
Sally Potter’s talent is a quirky, individual one, always interesting even when she’s not firing on all cylinders. Her 1997 film The Tango Lesson was a beguiling mixture of fact and fiction that starred Potter herself as a filmmaker named Sally, taking lessons from tango star Pablo Veron and promising to put him in her next movie—presumably The Tango Lesson itself. I thought it was one of the best movies of the year, but it seemed to sink at the box office without a ripple of interest even in the art-house crowd.
In The Man Who Cried, Potter seems to be fumbling to find a firm grip on the story. She fumbles even to justify the title, inserting a scene of Johnny Depp shedding manly tears in the cold morning light that seems inconsistent with his character, whatever the provocation of the moment. On the surface, Potter’s story is something of an epic, moving as it does in 15 years from the villages of Russia through the decadent Paris of the Third Republic to Hollywood in the 1940s. And yet the film’s dominant motif seems to be the face of Christina Ricci, with wide brown eyes and domed forehead, staring at whatever is going on around her at that moment (as a child, Suzie/Fegele is played by Claudia Lander-Duke, a good physical match for Ricci). Ricci stares blankly, or with eyebrows slightly knit in concern, for most of the film, seldom saying more than three or four words at a time and often saying nothing at all.
This doesn’t strike me as an effective use of Ricci’s talent. Her face is far less expressive than her voice, and the role of a waif buffeted by the winds of war is a strange change of pace from the wised-up, female Holden Caulfield personality Ricci usually projects.
It’s not that Ricci hasn’t the range to play frightened and vulnerable. She probably does, but Potter doesn’t give her much to hang a character on—Suzie has things done to her rather than doing anything herself. It’s central to the film’s concept, in fact, but the upshot of it all is that Potter gives all the best lines and moments to Cate Blanchett as Lola. Blanchett has the range in spades, and a blank stare is not in her bag of tricks—she says more with her eyes while a man lights her cigarette than Christina Ricci has said out loud in her last six movies. Alternately lolling across the screen like Natasha Fatale and flouncing dramatically like a Slavic Bette Davis, Blanchett yanks the film around her while Ricci stands baffled, wondering what happened.
Christina Ricci has top billing, but The Man Who Cried is Cate Blanchett’s movie, and when Lola leaves for good it turns the last part of the movie into a low-key epilogue, touching and heartfelt, yet somehow anticlimactic.