The grander the passion, the kitschier; the crazier the kitsch, the better. Why not cast the whole 20th century as just another silly love song? Overwrought and underwhelming, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge has been touted as a major-league lunacy, but there’s far too much method in the madness; underproduced and overconceptualized, Sally Potter’s equally foolish The Man Who Cried is truly nuts, in part because it seems oblivious to its own delusions.
Among the more vivid literary recollections of a misspent childhood, I remember a Mad magazine parody of horror comics in which a moldering bayou garbage dump came disgustingly to life. Would that Luhrmann’s strenuous attempt to revive the movie musical (and La Bohème besides) were half so unruly. In a sense, this magpie monument is the opposite of the monster Mad called The Heap. Scarcely chaotic, Moulin Rouge is a voracious vacuum cleaner of a movie—hoovering up a hundred years’ worth of junk with the same monotonously unmodulated hum.
Still, it takes a while to wish to pull the plug. The movie’s clever opening suggests both the flickering trick films of 1900 and the digital wonders of the present day—raising the curtain to rocket the viewer over the roofs and through the back alleys of Montmartre. This muddy, smoggy Paris looks like the second city of the Star Wars planet, while every interior is a glitz explosion of confetti and Disneydust. One step away from the animated ooh-la-la of Gay Purr-ee, Moulin Rouge promises a truly vulgar display, but what it ultimately delivers is a shopworn if inflated backstage romance.
Deliberately retro? From the moment the Summer of Love (when “the world had been swept up in a bohemian revolution”) is located in 1899, Moulin Rouge is programmatically anachronistic, never more so than in its music. The title song from The Sound of Music is combined with “Children of the Revolution,” and “Heroes” egregiously segues into “I Will Always Love You.” It’s almost witty when the Moulin Rouge can-can girls kick their heels above their heads to “Lady Marmalade.” The disco metaphor ages rapidly, however, when the divine Satine (Nicole Kidman) descends from the nightclub ceiling on a trapeze, shimmying and squealing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
Christian (Ewan McGregor), a young poet who speaks in ’70s song titles, employs Elton John’s “Your Song” to transfix Satine and make Paris light up. As demonstrated in Velvet Goldmine, McGregor has a strong vibrato, although here he has difficulty losing his smirk—his naïve persona is regularly undercut by a wolfish grin. As the secretly consumptive, alabaster sex goddess of the Moulin Rouge, Kidman has a pale allure accentuated by blood-red lips and accessorized with a black guardian angel known as “Le Chocolat.” She performs with a cold, if frenzied, reserve appropriate to the film’s mood of calculated hysteria.
The chemistry is only tepid and, as hallucinatory spectacle, Moulin Rouge peaks early with an absinthe vision of Tinkerbell. Even the score is something of a tease—more a matter of medleys than actual numbers. (The impeccable Jim Broadbent carries off the lone musical tour de force with his prancing version of “Like a Virgin.”) Luhrmann elaborates on his trademark technique of encouraging actors to push their grinning faces into the camera throughout, but Moulin Rouge becomes truly awful only with the mad montage of jealous rage and tango histrionics that introduces the grand finale. This dirgelike “Show Must Go On”-cum-faux Bollywood number is so lugubrious it might have been conceived by Andrew Lloyd Webber—amid the turgid sturm und drang, John Leguizamo’s lisping Toulouse-Lautrec is scarcely more than a buzzing annoyance.
On the Luhrmann scale, Moulin Rouge is more tolerable than Strictly Ballroom but less interesting than Romeo + Juliet (which suggests that the director may only be as good as his material). The last big avant-musical, Dancer in the Dark, was a movie one could love or loathe, but Moulin Rouge inspires a sour “So what?” Will it pull in the kids? If you couch potatoes have seen the trailers, you’ve seen the movie. This tawdry bauble has less drama and lousier karaoke than any given episode of Ally McBeal.
Conventionally worse than Moulin Rouge (but far more entertaining), Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried is another attempt to reanimate a passé genre: the multi-star romantic epic of the 1950s. Part of the charm is predicated on Potter’s pragmatic downsizing. Perhaps, as a child, the writer-director dreamt of making a glamorous tale of pogroms and chorus girls, Nazis and gypsies, war and shipwreck, that would span the globe from Russia to Paris to Hollywood, and star Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, and, as the fascist baritone, Kirk Douglas. She settles for Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, and John Turturro.
Rich with arias and inadvertent anachronism, The Man Who Cried raises its curtain on a shtetl that might once have been home to Fievel the Mouse. A cantor’s daughter survives a pogrom in Soviet Russia, then sets off to find her immigrant papa in America. Put ashore in London and renamed Suzie, she grows up in Dickensian foster care and matures into big-eyed Ricci. Naturally, this round and solemn creature goes to France as a chorus girl, sharing her lodging with a rangy Russian named Lola (fabulously histrionic Cate Blanchett). A few quick cuts introduce the Mutt and Jeff team to their respective swains—Johnny Depp’s gypsy horse-handler, Cesar (the natives call him El Smolderoso), and John Turturro’s Dante, an opera star whose onstage contortions are even more baroque than Blanchett’s flouncing pirouettes.
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.
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 Cried is 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.