WARNING: Plot spoilers ahead.
Just in case there is any confusion, Johnny Depp is THE man who cries in Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried. Of course, there are any number of men who cry throughout the film (the heroine’s father, for instance, who sheds tears the few times we see him), which follows the interconnected lives of various Gypsies, Jews, and foreign nationals as they converge in Paris of the late 1930s, immediately before Charles De Gaulle bent over for Hitler and the Nazis occupied the city of lights. These other weepy guys hardly count though, and the tears of gypsy horseman Cesar (Depp) are the title’s reference and one of the film’s focal dramatic moments. The problem is that when we finally reach the normally stoic Cesar’s emotional breakdown, the scene is handled so ham-handedly that you can only groan inwardly to yourself, “Ah yes, he’s the man who cried.”
The over-determination of this scene is not unique in The Man Who Cried. Indeed, Potter’s new film is a sprawling affair, filled with bad accents (Cate Blanchett’s tortured “Russian”), tired cliches about studly horsemen and young girls’ sexual awakenings, and really bad lip-syncing to Italian opera. There are the makings of a compelling story embedded in the film, but this story is so truncated by excessive editing that its trajectory is often confusing and its characters (Cesar in particular) are severely underdeveloped.
The film begins in a tiny Jewish shtetl in Russia, where the young girl Fegele/Suzie (Christina Ricci) says goodbye to her father, who is emigrating to America to start a new life for his family. Just after he departs, the Soviet pogroms descend and the shtetl is destroyed. Fegele/Suzie escapes with some other village children, but once she arrives at the port, she gets on the wrong boat and winds up not in America but Britain. She is quickly divested of her “ethnic” identity, given the new, properly British name Suzie, and fostered with a “normal” British couple. Years pass and Suzie assimilates to British culture and earns her British citizenship. Still, Suzie yearns for her lost father. Upon finishing school, she becomes a chorus girl in a dance company and sets off for Paris, believing this will bring her one step closer toward getting to America and finding him.
In Paris, Suzie befriends Lola (Cate Blanchett), a White Russian expatriate and fellow chorus girl. The rest of the film follows the two young women as they struggle to make ends meet, seek a sense of identity and belonging in a foreign culture, and bear witness to the intolerance of the times, when prejudice against both Jewish and Romany cultures reaches its apotheosis in the Nazi advance across Europe. What is most annoying about the relationship between the two women is how they are so calculatedly and obviously polar opposites. Suzie is the quiet observer, while Lola is the flighty and superficial man-hunter. Suzie will wait for “true love” and wonders if it will ever come, while Lola just wants a rich and/or famous (preferably both) man who will keep her in diamonds and furs. Suzie worries over the cruelties of the world, while Lola believes that if you smile widely enough, bleach your hair blondely enough, and wear a shade of lipstick red enough, everything will be fine. And though it may seem that Lola is the “bad” (or at least un-enlightened—the film doesn’t totally demonize her) character, due to her superficiality and willingness to overlook injustice, Suzie’s sanctimonious self-righteousness is equally distasteful. Really, neither of these girls is very sympathetic.
Considering their characters, personal histories, and desires, it is no surprise when Lola falls for the famous Italian opera star Dante Domino (John Turturro), who publicly defends the “order” and “theatrics” of Mussolini’s brand of fascism, and Suzie falls for the quiet and mysterious outcast Gypsy Cesar. Of course, the two couples’ cultural and political differences get increasingly complicated and their relationships further vexed, as the Nazis come closer to Paris. In the end, both women leave their lovers, Lola because even she can no longer ignore Dante’s fascistic tendencies, and Suzie because Cesar tells her she must leave and find her father in America, just as he must stay and fight for his extended Gypsy family in Paris. So noble, so true, such real tears!
Amidst all these tortured (and tiresome) love affairs, there are moments of real social and political insight in The Man Who Cried, but like its flat characters, these commentaries are left largely undeveloped. The film tries to investigate how various social arrangements shape identity and the functions of cultural assimilation. It is most obvious in commenting on how cultural assimilation is a function of state power, as when little Fegele is renamed Suzie and her education progresses by repeated lessons in how she must become like all the other British boys and girls. Her only picture of her father is taken away from her, and she is punished when she doesn’t speak English.
But there is another version of cultural assimilation here, which is a self-imposed transformation and attempt to forget painful histories and forge a new sense of one’s own identity. When Suzie finally finds her father (Oleg Yankovskiy), she discovers that, when he believed his family was destroyed in the razing of their Russian village, he lost faith in his God, his religion, and its attendant culture. And so, he has remarried a WASP-y, blonde American woman, fathered two children by her, and become a powerful mogul in that most American of industries, Hollywood. He builds a veritable empire… all to try to erase the painful memories of his past.
Yet, the film doesn’t really do anything with this version of cultural assimilation, or how Suzie’s father’s attempt to create a new identity is interrupted and potentially unraveled by her reappearance. The details of his life since he left Russia are only briefly sketched out in the last few minutes of the film: when father and daughter are reunited, the film ends. And while the film does address the above two obvious practices of assimilation, what it leaves totally unexamined is the more complicated question of how cultural assimilation is often actively engaged in by immigrant and diasporic cultures, and how the Jewish diaspora has been particularly apt to practice assimilation in response to centuries of persecution, intolerance, and exile. Rather than give deeper consideration to the social and political issues that arise from the interplay of nation, culture, identity, assimilation, and immigration, however, The Man Who Cried merely skims their surfaces and is content to focus instead on Cesar and his horse, on Lola’s lips, Suzie’s hips, and on its own bland replication of the generic romance conventions. And in the end, it left this man crying, “Uncle!”