The Man Who Laughs (L'Homme Qui Rit): Venice Review

Thoroughly old-fashioned but ultimately moving literary adaptation has more than enough exploitable features to indicate long-term commercial success.

Gérard Depardieu stars in the latest version of Victor Hugo's influential 1869 novel adapted by Jean-Pierre Améris.

A powerhouse end justifies some clunky means in The Man Who Laughs (L'Homme qui rit), Jean-Pierre Améris' functional, liberal adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1869 novel that builds stealthily to a surprisingly moving finale. Very much designed for audiences rather than critics, this opulent period fantasy/tragedy received predictably harsh press when world-premiering as Venice’s closing film. But the French/Czech co-production, co-funded by Luc Besson's savvy EuropaCorp and shot entirely on Prague sound-stages with some stiffly artificial results, may yet enjoy the last "laugh" after its Dec. 26 release in France.

Two years ago Améris' comedy Romantics Anonymous exceeded expectations when bowing in the same holiday frame. And the fact that The Man Who Laughed arrives in Gallic cinemas only two months before Tom Hooper's heavily hyped English-language Hugo adaptation Les Misérables certainly won't do this homegrown rival any commercial harm. Ironically enough, it was Les Mis' distributor Universal who enjoyed a worldwide smash in 1928 with the best-known of the five previous adaptations of Hugo's book: Paul Leni’s semi-silent with Conrad Veidt unforgettable as the disfigured hero Gwynplaine.

While unsuitable for younger children with its dark themes, sexual suggestiveness and scary visuals, Améris' version appeals as a long-term moneymaker on TV and DVD where its Gothic-romance elements might even click with the lucrative Twilight crowd. International prospects in non-French-speaking countries will however be hampered by the fact that journeyman Améris lacks the visionary élan that a Burton, Gilliam or Jeunet might have brought to this creaky old table of a property.

A wandering orphan cruelly deformed at the hands of villains whose identities and motives remain unsatisfactorily murky throughout, Améris' Gwynplaine finds his freakish looks make him a valuable showbusiness attraction thanks to the promotional skills of kindly, larger-than-life mountebank Ursus (Gérard Depardieu). After years of enjoyable traveling-show toil - The Elephant Man this certainly ain't - Gwynplaine learns that he's actually a wealthy aristocrat and is catapulted to a life of castle-dwelling luxury.

Set in an unspecified epoch sometime just before the French Revolution,Guillaume Laurant's screenplay departs from Hugo's text by having Gwynplaine (Marc-André Grondin) use his new status to bewail the lot of the poor and downtrodden: "Je suis un misérable!" he yells in Parliament. But this proto-one-percenter realizes that he's much better off back with Ursus and company, having fallen in love with his lifelong friend and co-performer, the blind, blonde and beautiful Déa (Christa Théret).

Whereas Veidt's Gwynplaine sported such a nightmarish permanent grin that Leni's picture is often classified as a horror movie, Canadian pinup Grondin’s scarring is more subtle, and doesn't detract from his dashing appeal - with his mane of black hair and delicately pale features, he resembles a junior version of Alan Rickman's Severus Snape from certain angles. This Gwynplaine's makeup effects are much closer to the carved rictus of Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight, thus completing a neat circle of literary and cinematic references as the face of Bob Kane's original comic-book character was modeled on Veidt's Gwynplaine.

Grondin, meanwhile, is known to Francophone audiences on both sides of the Atlantic: he broke through in Jean-Marc Vallée's smash C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) then took the Most Promising Male Actor award at the Césars three years later for The First Day of the Rest of Your Life. Having popped up as hedonistic hockey prodigy Xavier LaFlamme in Canadian comedy Goon last year, he forms half of a highly photogenic couple here with the evanescent Théret, a relative newcomer who shows distinct promise in a potentially sappy role.

Both are often overshadowed, however, by older hands including Serge Merlin as scheming footman Barkilphedro and Emmanuelle Seigner as a glamorously decadent Duchess. Best of all is a generously top-billed Dépardieu, who imparts the well-named Ursus with bearish physical presence, considerable humor and no small measure of pathos. Despite his legendarily Stakhanovite workrate, Dépardieu has notched only three César nominations in the last two decades and, if campaigned in the Supporting Actor category, could well nab further recognition from the France's academy.

It certainly helps that he's so prominent in the tragic finale which deploys Arvo Pärt's 'Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten' to devastating effect, the Estonian composer's haunting elegy a refreshing change after Stéphane Moucha's hyperactive, derivative score. The Pärt track, long a favorite of filmmakers worldwide, somehow retains its power despite overexposure - it's been used in the climax of one French production this year already, Alice Winocour's Augustine - and here rounds off proceedings in grandly tear-jerking style.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Closing Film - Out of Competition)
Production companies: EuropaCorp, Incognita Films
Cast: Marc-André Grondin, Gérard Depardieu, Christa Théret, Emmanuelle Seigner, Serge Merlin
Director: Jean-Pierre Améris
Screenwriter: Guillaume Laurant, based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Producers: Edouard de Vésinne, Thomas Anargyros
Director of photography: Gérard Simon
Production designer: Franck Schwarz
Costume designer: Olivier Bériot
Music: Stéphane Moucha
Editor: Philippe Bourgeuil
Sales agent: EuropaCorp, Paris
No MPAA rating, 93 minutes

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