DVD: Man Who Laughs, The / L’homme qui rit (2012)

March 16, 2018 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  Metropole / Mongrel

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  July 23, 2013

Genre:  Melodrama / Romance

Synopsis: Disfigured as a child, a clown falls for a corrupt duchess and discovers his noble lineage to a former marquise.

Special Features:  (none)




Victor Hugo’s emotionally brutal tale of a disfigured man and critique of upper class society was given a second cinematic go-round in this elegant production, reportedly more faithful to the author’s 1869 novel than Paul Leni’s 1928 silent version starring Conrad Veidt.

Packed with an attractive cast, The Man Who Laughs is much leaner in story and character moments, yet follows the central tale of scarred and abandoned Gwynplaine adopted by poor itinerant showman Ursus who eventually has an affair with a vindictive duchess, and upsets both snooty society and the royal family when he’s revealed as the lost child of a marquise.

Leaner doesn’t mean better, and in spite of director Jean-Pierre Améris’ best efforts to evoke aspects of the silent film and the era’s grimy atmosphere, the indulgences and backstory scenes of Leni’s film provide a much richer experience.

It’s also impossible to attain the heights of Veidt’s performance, but to be fair this colour and sound version also mandated changes to the portrayal of wounded Gwynplaine: the fitted appliance that enabled Veidt to wear a hideous grin also prevented speech, hence a different makeup design that’s more of a deep and badly healed scar that still conveys some grotesqueness but allows Canada’s Marc-André Grondin (C.R.A.Z.Y.) to deliver a broader range of facial expressions and have no difficulty with dialogue.

The strongest characters in both versions are Gwynplaine, the duchess Josiane (Emmanuelle Seigner), and showman Ursus (Gérard Depardieu), but sadly the weakest character remains Dea (Christa Théret), the blind infant Gwynplaine rescued and eventually grows up to love as an adult. The issue with Dea may lie in Hugo’s crafting her as an angel borne to suffer great heartache yet always hoping sorrow and hardship are transcended by her unwavering love and joy for Gwynplaine. She is the antithesis to Josiane in both film versions, but where Olga Baclanova’s played her (renamed Josiana) as a corrupt skank, Seigner (Bitter Moon, Giallo) plays her as more cautious, discrete, and politically savvy.

After shunning Gwynplaine the day after their affair, there’s also a palpable sense Josiane possesses some pity and affection for the young man: her cruel words in what’s ostensibly their parting scene are used to push Gwynplaine away for his own benefit and salvation from an obsessive, impossible love, and perhaps stiffen him in preparation for the cruel teasing and rejection destined to come from his newfound upper-class peers.

Josiane’s ‘benevolent gesture’ isn’t necessary, however, because once anointed a lord, Gwynplaine’s inaugural and highly critical address to the queen and starched peers (some donning elephantine putty noses) does the job in one fiery blast of rage. It’s one of the film’s strongest scenes, but it comes perhaps a bit too late, because to augur the story’s inherently bleak tone Améris interpolates small comedic moments that evoke more than a bit of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990).

The parallels aren’t hidden: Grondin’s gothic wardrobe and huge mane of dense black hair aren’t far off from Johnny Depp’s all-black Scissorhands outfit; and instead of sharp fingers that cut and scar, Gwynplaine’s grin is what repels onlookers and later transforms him into a celebrity once he’s superficially embraced by the establishment – royalty and lords in Laughs, and trendy middle-class suburbia in Scissorhands. Moreover, temptress Josiane is not dissimilar to oversexed hair stylist Joyce (Kathy Baker), as both are attracted to each respective character’s physical flaws, and their shared timidity and innocence.

Composer Stephane Moucha also evokes the spirit of Danny Elfman with a similar use of wordless choir, and his jaunty cues support an extended montage as Gwynplaine selects an outfit and is made-up like a proper lord, which bares a sharp resemblance to Scissorhands’ suburban makeover.

Scissorhands and the silent version of Laughs follow the extended finale typical of Universal’s monster films in which a rebel / reject / freak of nature / outcast is chased out of town by weaponized citizens and driven to his doom, but unlike Universal’s Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Frankenstein (1931), Burton and Leni ensured audiences left theatres with closure: the delicate romance between the monster boy and the sensitive girl remains whole. Améris eschewed these clichés, dispensing with the big chase sequence and keeps things intimate, opting for finale faithful to Hugo’s work, but also tries to offer closure and hope in the spiritual world: after Dea dies from a self-administered dose of arsenic, Gwynplaine drowns himself, but sees her now sighted spirit before he respires and is once again reunited in the afterlife.

That finale also makes use of Arvo Paart’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” which heightens the tragedy of the doomed couple, but it also ends the film on a dreadfully sad note, so the solution to uplift audiences is to stitch together Moucha’s jaunty cues into a suite; the strategy admittedly pulls the audience away from the tragedy, but it also summarizes the film as a fable rather than a critique of human cruelty.

Leni’s version manages to be both fable and critique because the story was expanded with a prologue of Gwynplaine’s father, murdered by the king, and Barkilphedro’s involvement in both the father’s arrest and tossing Gwynplaine to the comprachicos to be scarred and used for criminal activities. The Iago qualities of Barilphedro are greatly reduced in Améris’ film – he’s a conniving weasel rather than secretive master manipulator – and the corruption of royalty and the lords is more implied in static scenes; even the rarely shown queen is reduced to a silent, frumpish figure.

Josiana’s fiancé Lord Dirry-Moir is wholly absent in Améris’ version, but Gwynplaine has a slight rival for Dea’s affection – a fellow showman who respectfully keeps his feelings tightly locked away because he knows Dea is Gwynplaine’s girl. Also unique to the 2012 film is the inclusion of a mother who lost her child to the comprachicos, but aside from a brief dialogue scene, she pretty much disappears until the finale, where she gathers with fellow shanty villagers as Dea dies near the water’s edge.

Améris film is neither awful nor unnecessary; it’s a strangely different interpretation and experience with its own minor degrees of success, but it lacks the emotional desperation of Leni’s version (which is admittedly more epic and extreme in melodrama, especially the outrageously contrived denouement). It’s also heavily reliant on digital recreations of 17th century Britain and digitally goosing atmospheric shots which aren’t as affecting as the stunning B&W cinematography, lighting, and expressionistic sets in Leni’s more costly studio production. Where Leni’s camera moves and shots are kinetically intercut, Améris’ direction is more typical of a slightly upscale yet conventional TV movie.

Metropole’s DVD features a decent transfer of the film with optional English subtitles and a clean French 5.1 surround mix, but no extras to contextualize the novel nor the film.



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan





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