It would perhaps be unfair to blame a character with a permanent grimace carved onto his face for not emoting enough, but in Jean-Pierre Ameris’ adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “The Man Who Laughs,” the disfigured protag nonetheless remains a non-entity for too long. Less faithful to its source material and more concerned with delivering the goods visually, this handsome, studio-shot pic, somewhat ironically, lacks genuine pathos in telling its tale of how deceiving looks can be. Gerard Depardieu’s presence and Hugo’s name might draw Francophiles, but this’ll probably need a last laugh in ancillary to turn a profit.
Gwynplaine is taken in as a child (Arben Bajraktaraj) by itinerant herbalist-turned-playwright and fairground worker, Ursus (Depardieu, doing Depardieu), who initially orders the boy to hide his carved smile behind a veil by day when he goes out, though at night, the now grown Gwynplaine (Marc-Andre Grondin) plays variations of himself in Ursus’ plays to great enough acclaim to inspire even a sexy duchess (Emmanuelle Seigner) to come and check out the show.
Blind, ethereal Dea (Christa Theret) shares the limelight alongside Gwynplaine, who rescued her as a baby from her frozen mother’s arms. The two players are clearly meant for each other, but Gwynplaine, whose horrible childhood scars (the inspiration for Batman’s Joker) cause everyone to mock him, is too self-conscious to get close to Dea.
As revealed around the halfway mark, Gwynplaine’s really the son of a now-deceased marquis, whose fortress, lands, chamberlain (Serge Merlin, wonderful) and seat in parliament he has inherited. Director Ameris, up to this point having worked in a somewhat stilted, melodramatic register — shooting mostly indoors, and clearly evoking Paul Leni’s 1928 silent with Conrad Veidt — now shifts into lightly comic mode, as the protag tries on the clothes and palace-life of an aristocrat, eliciting some chuckles if still no insight.
The film’s best scenes (which also deliver a visual kick, thanks to a sly repetition of a key motif) are set in parliament, where the new marquis, who grew up in poverty, lectures the aristocracy on what the problems of the masses really are, providing an effective update for the “Occupy” age of Hugo’s political ideas. Moreover, by having Gwynplaine take a stand in front of a potentially hostile audience, viewers finally get a sense that there’s someone with principles, feelings and passion hiding behind that grotesque countenance, and Grondin, somewhat unhappily stuck behind layers of makeup throughout, is convincing here.
But Gwynplaine’s fervor, also briefly glimpsed in several amusing verbal sparring scenes with the devil-may-care duchess, is sadly lacking in the sequences that focus on his romance with Dea, which feels more like the stuff of a penny novel than a tragically doomed love affair. Theret (“Renoir”) looks ravishing, but Ameris and co-scripter Guillaume Laurant struggle to suggest that the impossibility of the lovers’ relationship is the result of Gwynplaine’s deep self-doubt over his appearance. Failing this, the film is unable to deliver the full measure of the poetic irony that the sightless Dea is the only one who can see past his looks, yet Gwynplaine is too blinded by his own fears to realize that.
With the pic set in an undefined time and place, production designer Franck Schwarz, costume designer Olivier Beriot and visual effects supervisor Thierry Delobel opt for an anachronistic jumble of styles that seems suspended somewhere between the 17th-century British setting of the novel, France in the late 1800s, when the book was published, and a silent-film studio backlot. The result looks lavish, but never quite coheres.
Scenes supposedly set outside (but filmed indoors at the Czech Republic’s Barrandov Studios by lenser Gerard Simon) remain half-hidden behind a permanent blue haze that unflatteringly flattens the picture and obscures details. Orchestral score by Stephane Moucha sounds like wannabe Mahler as transcribed by Bruno Coulais.