Saturday 11 October 2008

The Man Who Cried (2000)

When I go off on one of my rants about modern western cinema and how it all sucks because it's all about money and nothing at all about art, what Crispin Glover calls Commercial Funded and Distributed Film like a mantra, this would be appear to be the exceptions to the rule that I search for. I hadn't heard of the film: its name didn't bleed into my subconscious from passing some critical mass of signs outside multiplexes. I'm seeing it on the Sundance Channel, not as the movie of the week on NBC. It's rated R for sexual content. The original soundtrack is not by the flavour of the month rap artist, it's by Argentinian classical composer Osvaldo Golijov.

It's also an international production, for sure: French financed (through Canal+), shot in England and France, with American stars and authentic ethnic character actors for each of the nationalities needed (except for the stars, of course). While it's primarily in English, it doesn't shy from using subtitles: there's use of Yiddish, Russian, French, Italian, Romany and Romanian, as appropriate. I don't know the director: she's Sally Potter, English born and a versatile talent, it would seem: writer, director, composer, even actress on occasion. For her first film, a 45 minute short from 1979 called Thriller, she also covered production, cinematography, editing and sound.

The names I do recognise are ones that I have a habit of seeking out: in order of credits, Ricci, Blanchett, Turturro, Depp, Stanton. The lead is Christina Ricci, playing a Russian Jew called Suzie, brought up in England as a refugee after escaping from the Russian Revolution as a young child. The film follows her quest to find her father, who had left Russia a short while earlier to go to the States, where everything is possible. England was Suzie's first step in following him, using one of three gold coins her mother had sewed into her clothes.

Her second step was Paris, where she becomes a dancer. Cate Blanchett is a fellow dancer called Lola who rooms with her and forms her introduction to the others. Lola is also Russian, so Blanchett's accent was practiced before the new Indiana Jones film. They meet rich and egotistical Italian opera singer Dante Dominio, played by John Turturro, who Lola pursues, for her own reasons, the first being to get the pair of them into small roles in his opera, which is being staged by Felix Perlman, in the worthy and very subtle hands of Harry Dean Stanton. Also in the opera is a gypsy horseman called Cesar, who Suzie falls for. He's Johnny Depp and he rarely speaks, playing the part mostly silently.

Cesar is the epitome of what all the other characters have in common: they're all displaced in some form or other, living in countries other than their own, in a time of great displacement and there's a great power and meaning in realising this is true for every one of the main characters. The scenes in Paris come around the time that Nazi Germany invades Poland, triggering the Second World War, so nationality and religion are hot subjects. Suzie's origins are generally hidden: most people think she's an English girl in France, but some know she's a Russian Jew.

Perlman is another Jew, of course. We're not sure of his nationality, but he's obviously not French, and being a Jew is all that matters, with the Nazis coming. Lola's another Russian and Dominio is an Italian. With Italy allying itself with Germany, being an Italian makes his position a good one, but the same can't be said for the people he acquainted with. Suddenly just knowing someone or having talked to them carries more than knowledge and memory. These people are all subhuman in the eyes of his new friends and taints on him. He is enemy to them, in more ways than one. The interplay between them is what really makes our film.

There's a lot of magic here and while some of that certainly comes from the actors (Turturro and Depp, especially though outside of a couple of small scenes that Ricci obviously felt uncomfortable doing, I'm not going to fault any of the others), most of it's in what the film means and how it's given to us, often very subtle indeed: the use of eagle imagery shot from above on a stage, of windows as mirrors, of lighting on water, of the way that Potter uses the streets of Paris at night. Much of it is simply in the fact that parts of it done very right indeed, such as the scene with the gypsy dancer in the Parisian bar. Well beyond the fact that he is spectacular, the scene adds interplay between him, Suzie and Cesar in every combination, physically, mentally and in our imagination. That's a stunning scene and while it may be the most stunning, it's not the only one.

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