A World War Interrupts A Young Girl’s Fairy Tale

Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried, from her own screenplay, turns out to be a more effective musical than Moulin Rouge, though its subject is much darker and deadlier, dealing as it does with pre-Holocaust and early-Holocaust persecution of Jews and Gypsies in 1927 Russia and 1940 Paris. Fortunately, the grim background is adorned with several charismatic performances that enliven the proceedings without sinking into morbid self-pity. Indeed, Ms. Potter’s casting is superior to her writing, which falls back on the actors to express feelings through long silences.

In the first section of the film, a little Jewish girl named Fegele (beautifully played by Claudia Langer-Duke) is separated from her adoring father (Oleg Yankovsky), who emigrates to America to earn enough money to send for Fegele and her grandmother. An impending pogrom drives Fegele from her village to a ship bound for America, but she gets off in England, where she is brought up by a Christian family and given the new name of Suzie.

Grown-up Suzie (Christina Ricci), still yearning to go to America to find her father, signs up with a slightly sleazy Parisian troupe to earn enough money for the trip. She is befriended in Paris by Lola (Cate Blanchett), another member of the chorus and a would-be adventuress with many maxims on how to ensnare a man. Suzie and Lola agree to share an apartment to save money and take on odd jobs to build up their respective nest eggs. At one such extra gig, Suzie meets a taciturn Gypsy named Cesar (Johnny Depp), who rents out himself and his white horse for high-society tableaux vivants and operatic spectacles. At the same function, Lola flirts with an Italian opera singer, Dante Dominio (John Turturro), and eventually becomes his mistress.

The two relationships play out in close synchronization with the darkening clouds of Nazi conquest traumatizing an initially complacent, then terrified Parisian populace. Seeking revenge against Suzie, who spurned his advances, the overbearing Dante-revealed earlier as a self-professed champion of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini-betrays her secret Jewishness to the Nazis, much to Lola’s dismay and disgust.

What follows is a succession of catastrophes and near-catastrophes from which Suzie almost miraculously escapes, to be finally reunited with her father virtually on his death bed in Hollywood, where he has become a producer of musicals. In the process, she must leave Cesar in Paris. While he chooses to remain in support of his extended Gypsy “family,” he urges Suzie to flee with Lola rather than be captured and killed by the Nazis, ultimately crying at the thought of her departure as she lies sleeping in his arms on their last night together.

Few musicals or operas have plots as wild as The Man Who Cried, and only the allegorically stylized impact of the music keeps the film from amounting to the “hill of beans” to which Humphrey Bogart’s Rick consigns his trivially personal heartache after losing Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa to the global priorities of World War II. Ms. Potter’s film has no such pretensions for horrors already encountered and endured. Casablanca (1942) was made in the middle of the fight; The Man Who Cried appears long after the events it confronts have become history, however controversial.

Contributing to the film’s prevalent mood of gallant fatalism is a haunting Gypsy rendition of “Gloomy Sunday,” a piece of music I heard about in my salad days as so conducive to suicide that it was banned from the airwaves. Generous doses of Verdi, Puccini, Bizet and other composers take up the rest of the slack in the displaced lives of characters, who do not so much move us as fascinate us in a detached manner as we contemplate how they cope with the losses incurred in the historical nightmare they are forced to experience firsthand.

To her credit, Ms. Potter somehow avoids the avant-garde mannerisms that fatally distanced her previous efforts: The Gold Diggers (1983), despite the luminous presence in the cast of Julie Christie, and Orlando (1992), with its ultimately tiresome gender games, which came over more felicitously on the pages of Virginia Woolf’s novel than on the unforgivingly sober screen of Ms. Potter’s genteel fancies. No matter how far-fetched the narrative of The Man Who Cried becomes, Ms. Potter never lets herself off the hook with surreal dreamscapes.

Instead, she reveals a generous spirit in refusing to caricature or demonize Dante Dominio, her most unsympathetic and potentially ridiculous character. Mr. Turturro is allowed to portray the egocentric Dante with an undercurrent of pathetic vulnerability, derived from the insecurity he must forever blame on his ignoble peasant origins. Hence, his character is allowed to sing and sing and sing, as if to provide an ironic Zeitgeist on which the other characters subsist. Dante thus becomes an all-too-human monster whom Suzie must escape to give her fairy tale its bittersweet ending.

One Cure For Writer’s Block

Dominik Moll’s With a Friend Like Harry, from a screenplay by Mr. Moll and Gilles Marchand, has been likened in its tactics for generating suspense and uneasiness to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, and Mr. Moll has freely acknowledged the Hitchcockian influence in interviews. Yet, despite its undeniable excellence as audience-rousing cinema, With a Friend Like Harry lacks one essential Hitchcockian ingredient, and that is moral equilibrium. But to explain what I mean, I must give away more of the plot than is advisable for readers who have not yet seen this brilliant, if immoral, work. So turn away from this column immediately, and return to it again only after you have seen the movie-which, as I have indicated, you should.

To begin with, the Hitchcock film with which Mr. Moll’s film has been most often compared is Strangers on a Train (1951). Only here it is a case of two old classmates meeting in the men’s room of a highway rest stop. Up to now, we have followed Michel (Laurent Lucas), his wife Claire (Mathilde Seigner) and their three noisy little girls on an aggravating trip to their summer home. Michel has just finished changing his smallest girl’s diaper when he is confronted by the insinuating smile of Harry (Sergi López). During the short period in which Michel stares uncomprehendingly at Harry, we are led to believe that we are witnessing the beginning of a gay pick-up, but when Harry begins reciting a poem that Michel had published in the high-school yearbook, Michel’s mind is jogged sufficiently to recall Harry as a classmate. Michel is also puzzled and flattered that Harry should still remember his poem by heart, since Michel has long since given up any ambition to become a writer.

Harry begins to sound a bit like Michel’s literary agent as he sadly regrets Michel’s abandonment of what Harry perceived as a great talent. Michel sheepishly confesses that he teaches French to Japanese students, and when Harry catches a glimpse of Michel’s clamoring family, he fills in the rest of the reasons for what he perceives as Michel’s creative block. Thus, what starts out as a potentially homosexual encounter evolves slowly on Harry’s part into a homoerotic but seemingly disinterested obsession to return Michel to his true destiny as a writer. Consequently, Harry postpones a trip to the Swiss Matterhorn with his delectably curvaceous girlfriend, with the sensually provocative name of Plum (Sophie Guillemin), to go to Michel’s house. Since Michel’s wife Claire is also a looker, the joining of the two couples seems harmlessly straight enough.

Mr. Moll and Mr. Marchand have managed to fill their story with darkly and ominously comic details. Harry is evidently richer than Michel, judging by the air-conditioned Mercedes he drives next to Michel’s non-air-conditioned station wagon, in which his little girls constantly whine due to the sweltering heat. Thus, it is almost a relief for Michel to accept Harry’s offer of having his wife and children ride in the cooler car the rest of the way to the house. And what a house: It looks like something out of a Charles Addams scrap book, “needing a lot of work,” but unexpectedly disfigured by a shocking pink upstairs bathroom installed during the winter by Michel’s meddlesome dentist father. Michel’s one-way telephone conversations with his father are overheard by Harry and interpreted as further obstacles to Michel’s creative awakening. Four murders later, Michel finds himself liberated from the attentions of his parents and his cynical hippie brother, and he is writing up a storm in the hitherto-despised pink bathroom. Harry has disposed of Plum as well, as so much deadweight in the forthcoming spiritual collaboration with Michel.

But when Harry presents Michel with the opportunity to complete the process of career transformation by joining with him to kill off Michel’s wife and children, Michel draws a line in the sand with a knife in Harry’s stomach. He then buries Harry in the same abandoned wall Harry used to bury the well-meaning Plum. Michel never even thinks of calling the police or telling his wife about what happened. He has learned to lie as smoothly as Harry, and as he drives off with his family from his summer vacation, he looks at the combined blessings, now peacefully sleeping in the car, and the successful resurrection of his literary ambitions. There is no regret or remorse for having become a murderer like Harry, albeit on an admittedly justifiable lesser scale.

Perhaps this story would look too easy for a Jesuitical artist like Hitchcock, who specialized in heroes who felt guilty for what they didn’t do rather than for what they did. On the other hand, Hitchcock probably would have happily added the Harry of Sergi López to his gallery of gloriously complex villains. A World War Interrupts A Young Girl’s Fairy Tale