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If Hollywood regularly made boarding-school lesbian romantic dramas, you’d expect most of them to be like Lost and Delirious—outfitted with beautiful ingénues, picturesque locations, and clunky dialogue. People who have seen her Set Me Free, however, would anticipate better from director Léa Pool. Although the two films cover some of the same territory, the French-Canadian director’s previous effort was filled with distinctive, telling details, whereas Lost and Delirious depends entirely on earnest performances and the tantalizing subject matter to save it from banality.

Set in an unnamed country to the north of the United States, the film opens with the arrival of Mary Bradford (Mischa Barton) at a secluded girls’ school. For reasons that seem to have more to do with advancing the plot than the efficient administration of a boarding school, the repressed Mary—aka Mouse—is assigned to share a room with Pauline “Paulie” Oster (Piper Perabo) and Victoria “Tori” Moller (Jessica Paré), whose love affair has not gone unnoticed by the school’s two most prominent teachers (lesbians themselves, the movie hints).

Although seemingly much younger and certainly more innocent than her roommates, Mary is happy with her new living arrangement. Before meeting the vivacious Paulie and Tori, Mary admits in one of her occasional voice-overs, “I never knew what people meant when they said they had fun.” Mary bonds with the other girls via family confessions: She’s traumatized by the recent death of her mother and the subsequent arrival of a cold stepmother who has Mary sent away to school; this strikes a chord with high-strung Paulie, an adoptee who hates the woman she calls her “fake mother.” Mary’s not even particularly upset when her roommates slip into bed together for some heavy petting. (A note to viewers interested in such scenes: There’s only one.)

Then one morning, Tori’s priggish younger sister bursts into the room with her friends and finds Paulie and Tori asleep together naked. Appalled that the scandal will destroy both her reputation and her relationship with her conservative parents, Tori declares that her affair with Paulie is over. She even rushes out to obtain a beau from the nearby boys’ school. Paulie, meanwhile, acquires an even more symbolic new companion: a hawk with a broken wing, which she will nurse back to health even as she hones her own talons for her final, feral act. Pool even goes so far as to cue the sound of fluttering wings when Paulie makes a sudden dramatic move.

Adapted by Judith Thompson from Susan Swan’s novel The Wives of Bath, Lost and Delirious plays like a grrrl-love Dead Poets Society, although the Robin Williams role is split into two minor characters: The literature teacher who spars with Paulie but appreciates the girl’s passion, and the Amerindian gardener whose laconic wisdom comforts Mary while boring anyone else in earshot. Fencing lessons and Lady Macbeth’s plea for manly ruthlessness—”take my milk for gall”—inspire Paulie’s rebellion; the soundtrack includes Ani DiFranco and Me’shell Ndegéocello, but Paulie’s theme song is Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up.” It’s hard to take Gordon Gano’s plaints at face value, yet the sometimes cynical Paulie apparently does; neither she nor any of her classmates ever shield their bleeding hearts with irony.

Pool isn’t quite so deft with wonder-of-nature images as Dead Poets Society director Peter Weir, but she and cinematographer Pierre Gill include evocative views of the woods around the school, where Paulie bonds with the hawk, Tori loses her virginity, and Mary—apparently the surrogate for novelist Swan—secretly watches these events. Still, the film’s principal forces of nature are Perabo, Paré, and Barton, who play the central characters with more conviction than Thompson’s lines merit. Pool clearly created a bond with them that was nearly as intense as the one she had with Karine Vanasse, the star of the director’s semiautobiographical Set Me Free. Given the actresses’ zeal, it’s difficult to understand why the filmmakers squandered it on such an awkward, simplistic script.

Like Pool, Sally Potter has made ingenious, low-budget, personal films, although not without a taste for the epic; her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was a time-traveling, gender-shifting pocket history of England. Potter’s new The Man Who Cried is also an epic of sorts, one that journeys from Russia to Hollywood in the perilous 1930s. It was inspired, however, by music and images, and the narrative that the writer-director devised to link these inspirations never comes to life.

The action begins in a shtetl in Russia, where little Fegele (Claudia Lander-Duke) is very close to her father (Oleg Yankovskiy), a cantor. Dad reluctantly leaves for the United States to make his fortune, leaving his only child with her grandmother. (Mom’s whereabouts are never established.) When a pogrom threatens the village, the children are sent away, and Fegele ends up in Britain. There she’s renamed Suzie and adopted by a middle-class couple. Suzie is a talented singer, and as she warbles, she becomes Christina Ricci. Then it’s off to Paris for work as a chorus girl, which somehow turns into a gig with an opera company starring Italian singer Dante (John Turturro), a poor boy who’s made good—and bad. Suzie also becomes friends with ambitious, manipulative Russian émigré Lola (Cate Blanchett) and falls in love with brooding gypsy horseman Cesar (Johnny Depp). Surprisingly clueless about the implications of being a Jew in Paris as German tanks blitz through Belgium, Suzie wants to stay with Cesar, who anticipates his family’s destruction. (He’s one of the men who cries.) Cesar and Lola insist that Suzie must go to the United States, where she quickly picks up the trail of her father.

Music is supposed to tie these events together. The melancholy Hungarian melody “Gloomy Sunday”—which already inspired a 1999 German film named for the tune—is one of the motifs, along with gypsy, klezmer, and operatic music. Potter enlisted the Kronos Quartet, avant-rock guitarist Fred Frith, and Jewish Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose contribution provides a link to the director’s previous feature, The Tango Lesson. Visually, Potter drew on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of Paris, where the bulk of the film takes place, and Josef Koudelka’s images of Eastern European gypsies. Venerable cinematographer Sacha Vierny, who’s known for his work with Alain Resnais and Peter Greenaway, created sepia-toned images that become more color-saturated as the story advances.

“Story” isn’t quite the word, though. The Man Who Cried is more of a schema, inhabited by thematic markers rather than characters. Suzie is a symbol of lost, oppressed cultures deprived of their voices: She’s a Jew who bonds with gypsies, and the Welsh schoolteacher who tells her that she must no longer speak Yiddish blurts that as a young student he was forced to abandon his own native language. (No mere aside, this remark is a line from the film’s insistent refrain.) When the mercenary Lola takes up with the pro-fascist Dante while the homeless Suzie is falling for the stateless Cesar, the former couple is as voluble as the latter one is laconic. (From another perspective, Blanchett and Turturro’s broad overacting allies them against Ricci and Depp’s tight underplaying.) The oppositions are too tidy and the portrayals too programmatic.

Much of the film was shot on location in Paris, both back streets and prominent landmarks. Yet some of the strongest moments are more theatrical than cinematic. When Suzie arrives in New York, for example, the towers of Manhattan are glimpsed only as a reflection on the porthole in front of her face. Perhaps Potter should have shot the film entirely on soundstages, emphasizing artifice in the manner of Greenaway or Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. The Man Who Cried is less a movie than an illustrated lecture, and it might have been more satisfying if Potter had not pretended otherwise. CP