Review: The Man Who Laughs

(L’homme qui rit)

Director: Jean-Pierre Améris
Starring: Gérard Depardieu, Marc-André Grondin, Emmanuelle Seigner


Fiona Hardie, Arts Editor

Jean-Pierre Améris’ drama The Man Who Laughs, his latest film to screen as part of the French Film Festival UK at the Glasgow Film Theatre since 2011’s Romantics Anonymous, is a sumptuous, dark fairytale, evoking shades of Burton, Wilde and other such similar artists.

Gwynplaine, a young man with a facial ‘disfigurement’ in the form of a scar at each corner of his mouth, made to look like a ‘smile’, is taken in as a boy – along with Déa, a young blind girl – in a snowstorm by swindler Ursus (Depardieu). Abandoned by Hardquannone, the surgeon responsible for his scar, Gwynplaine grows up in Ursus’ caravan with Déa, the three of them forming some kind of makeshift family. Having always been told to hide his scar from others, as people are afraid of things they do not know or understand, Gwynplaine realises one day that his disfigurement is seen by some as a form of entertainment, and after several years they end up at a carnival, performing fairytale-like plays about ‘The Man Who Laughs’. Gwynplaine and Déa are now in love, but he feels undeserving, as he still sees himself as ‘repulsive’. However, there is an important part of his past that he is not entirely aware of.

Speaking at the screening, Améris said that it was not intended to be a realistic, or historically accurate film (Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel takes place in late-17th Century England), but rather a recreation of ‘what it feels like to be fifteen’. As a young man, Améris was influenced by a television adaptation, and then the novel itself, and this certainly comes across during the course of the film: the settings of castles and carnivals, and the colours used to portray each height of emotion evoke a sense of nostalgia and youth, but also a contrast in naivety and cynicism.

Admittedly, the narrative does feel slightly rushed at some points, with some of the more dramatic or suspenseful parts of the plot left feeling as if they maybe could have been ever so slightly more drawn out. However it also makes sense, as it’s not an entirely truthful adaptation anyway, being more conceptual, and there were clear parts of the narrative that seemed to be focused on more for particular, significant reasons.

A rather thought-provoking full-circle effect struck me as surrounding the film: there is a distinct Burton-inspired vibe throughout – the visuals have a gothic taste, in the costumes and ‘look’ of the characters, the carnival setting, and then when the colours darken suddenly upon Gwynplaine’s arrival at a castle (described as a ‘tomb’ in the novel). Interestingly, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands was said to be inspired by Hugo’s novel, and Améris’ film is seemingly inspired, in turn, by the visuals of Scissorhands. The idea of a young ‘disfigured’ man, isolated by a society who is at once attracted to and repulsed by him, is one that seems to make up a trend in Améris’ films. He described how he is drawn to stories of characters who are different to the ‘norm’, as telling their story will help to dispel the sense of fear or insecurity people have about the unknown, or the misunderstood.

The Man Who Laughs is not a perfect film, and I don’t think it quite lives up to the standard that Romantics Anonymous set – but it is evidently a very personal portrayal of a particular concept, with a clear and important message, and as a dark and gothic feast for the eyes, I couldn’t help but be enchanted by it.document.currentScript.parentNode.insertBefore(s, document.currentScript);