Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried is the kind of film that seems to make excuses for itself. It covers up its own hoary, melodramatic tracks with beautiful images by Sacha Vierny (cinematographer to Alain Resnais and Peter Greenaway) and a constant preoccupation with the theme of cultural imperialism (it takes place in Russia, England and France from 1927 to 1939), but at the core is a sickening soft-focus romance that might have been lifted out of a Harlequin potboiler. And even though I'm a fan of Johnny Depp, I've got to admit that his tanned, open-shirted performance could've been quite effectively understudied by Italian super-hunk Fabio (Depp is about as laconic as Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator).
Potter is a darling of post-doctoral feminists who immerse themselves in Lacanian psychoanalysis and overuse words like "codified," but this project reveals too much of its puerile sensibility to be taken seriously by even her staunchest supporters. It stars Christina Ricci as Suzie, a Russian Jew who was orphaned as a toddler, and had the remnants of her culture disciplined out of her by a pair of stern British foster parents. When she's old enough to be liberated from them, she moves to Paris, where she finds work as a chorus girl and then as a performer in an opera company. All of this preamble is vaguely familiar in tone to any number of European films that distinguish themselves with their authenticity, but Potter's film seems to stand uneasily on the shoulders of great filmmakers from Renoir to Tarkovsky. She's a postmodern poser, aware that her film exists in the shadow of greatness, and maybe she wants her broad brush-strokes to look deliberate.
There are some central aspects of The Man Who Cried that could be explained away as knowing parody straight-faced and savvy but it's impossible to wish away the gauzy slow-mo images of Depp, a gypsy proto-revolutionary, proudly trotting his white stallion around two raging bonfires as a mating ritual (an enraptured Ricci looks on, her hair flowing in the breeze). It's a wordless seduction, perhaps effective as Potter's own guilty, thrumming fantasy, but laughable, maybe even gag-worthy as an actuality on the screen. I don't know how much of this to take seriously, but the consistent foreshadowing of the Holocaust, and the thematic through-line of cultural annihilation puts the onus on the audience to approach the film with high seriousness. The problem is, the final payoff has a sort of trite poignancy that makes the suggestiveness of the rest of the film seem merely diversionary. A hard look at the film reveals a thin, emotionally driven structure. Somehow, Ricci acquits herself with a lot of poise. She's no longer just the otherworldly goth-chick with the big, wide-set eyes. She's a substantial actress who employs her physical presence (she uses her zaftig body with the posture and discipline of a ballerina) as much as her subtle verbal skills. She has a clean, deferential British accent in the film, but you also sense the Russian heritage lurking underneath, politely suppressed but not forgotten.