Kitsch as Kitsch Can

Crazy love and sudden revelation: A Jewish landlady restores Suzie to her roots with the imperative "Eat!" (The chicken soup's ostentatious pair of matzo balls reminds me of the old joke in which, brought home for dinner by fiancé Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe innocently asks her prospective mother-in-law what she does with "the rest of the matzo.") But the treacherous Dante is busy monitoring Suzie's romance. "Your lee-tul friend has become a jeepsy-lover," he sneeringly informs Lola—and that's before he discovers the secret behind Suzie's sacred photograph of her bearded, kapote-clad father.

Swept up in the bohemian revolution: Kidman and McGregor in Moulin Rouge
photo: Ellen Von Unwerth
Swept up in the bohemian revolution: Kidman and McGregor in Moulin Rouge

Details

Moulin Rouge
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
20th Century Fox

The Man Who Cried
Written and directed by Sally Potter
Universal Focus
Opens May 25

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The Man Who Cried heedlessly leaps from one emotional peak to the next. Nothing can top the mad doina of Suzie pedaling her bicycle through nocturnal Paris in mad pursuit of two gypsy horsemen, unless it's the scene of Lola weepily watching the climax of Footlight Parade and imagining herself the star. What's truly amazing is that, from a formalist perspective, The Man Who Cried is not poorly made. On the contrary. Potter employs a canny minimalism—ingeniously establishing her period mise-en-scène largely through close-ups and interiors—and saves her most elaborate camera angles for the onstage scenes. You know Paris has fallen when Suzie awakes to hear the amplified thunder of Nazi jackboots—thus the thrifty filmmaker economizes in the hiring of costumed extras.

The Man Who Cried gives bad movies a good name. Potter's stringent, resourceful filmmaking in handling an extravagantly absurd plot and hopeless acting recalls the genius of the poverty-row maestro Edgar G. Ulmer. Writing on Ulmer's Daughter of Dr. Jekyll ("a film with a scenario so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll"), Andrew Sarris noted that "Ulmer's camera never falters even when his characters disintegrate." So it is with Sally Potter, except that she is directing her own ludicrous script.

The combination of cool visuals and overheated narrative, as well as the escalating absence of transition shots, renders The Man Who Cried increasingly dreamlike. From the moment Suzie and Lola set sail on the World War II equivalent of the Titanic, the movie grows simultaneously more austere and delirious. Suzie entertains the passengers with "Gloomy Sunday" (imagined as a shtetl melody and dubbed by the Czech art chanteuse Iva Bittova), while Lola does laps in the ship's swimming pool. Immediately upon drifting into New York, Suzie begins searching for Dad on the Lower East Side. No more or less remarkable than the survival of her talismanic photograph is the fact that the Jews know him: Yes, he is The Bitter One who cursed God and went to Hollywood.

Potter seems essentially humorless, but she does not lack for conviction. The Man Who Criedis like a Yiddish generational tearjerker told from the perspective of the lost child rather than that of the bereaved parent. Indeed, Potter all but reprises the stunning climax of the Yiddish talkie Where is My Child?, wherein the young lawyer turns his back on his fancy-shmancy Park Avenue adopted parents to embrace his long-lost real mother. This indomitable crazed bag lady (Celia Adler no less) turns to the camera for the movie's final shot and triumphantly exclaims, "There is a God!" In The Man Who Cried, God is in the details.

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