Dir: Sally Potter. UK-Fr. 2000. 98 mins.

Prod co: Working Title, Adventure Pictures. Backers: Universal Pictures, StudioCanal. Int'l sales: StudioCanal, tel: (33) 1 4443 9800. Prod: Christopher Sheppard. Exec prods: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Co-prod: Simona Benzakein. Scr: Sally Potter. DoP: Sacha Vierny. Prod des: Carlos Conti. Editor: Herve Schneid. Music: Osvaldo Golijov. Main cast: Christina Ricci (Suzie), Cate Blanchett (Lola), John Turturro (Dante), Johnny Depp (Cesar), Harry Dean Stanton (Felix Perlman), Oleg Yankovskiy (Father).

'What was that'' was the dominant post-screening reaction in Venice to Sally Potter's new, all-star feature. First the good news: Potter has clawed her way back from the bottomless pit of The Tango Lesson with a film that is watchable, visually and aurally sumptuous, occasionally funny, and very occasionally moving.

And now the downside: The Man Who Cried suffers from a colossal identity crisis. In the most obvious reading, it's a schmaltzy, old-fashioned melodrama that revolves around the displacements and persecutions of the Second World War. In a less obvious but well-signalled reading, it's all a big send-up.

Christina Ricci plays Suzie, a Russian Jew who frowns her way through a middle-class upbringing in England and a career as a singer in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation. But never fear, her dedication to finding her long-lost father (who emigrated to America just before the pogroms began) drives her - and the plot - to its expected conclusion. Along the way, Suzie is befriended by Russian dancer Lola - a magnificently over-the-top Cate Blanchett - and melted by the gaze of gypsy horseman Cesar, played with contractual sultriness by Johnny Depp. John Turturro is spot-on as Dante Dominio, a preening opera star with Fascist tendencies - though the way the part is written typifies the film's tame acceptance of national stereotypes.

In this, of course, Sally Potter's film is faithful to its model - American musical melodramas of the 1940s and early 1950s (even the look of the thing is deliberately Technicolor). And yet, somewhere along the line, someone must have questioned the wisdom of making a film that feels so dated - and so the escape clause of irony and reference is roped in (a point driven home by the retro feel of the poster). But the send-up is hesitant: is that dialogue in the key farewell scene between Depp and Ricci deliberately corny, or just badly written' Is the miscast of Ricci - who does her best with the role - part of some obscure game-plan' Is a brief, visual reference to David's painting The Death of Marat just playing around, or is there some deeper level to this film'

No, there isn't. The Man Who Cried is a fitfully entertaining but ultimately unnecessary film that somehow fails to make enough of its central agenda: Jew meets gypsy, both outcasts. Blanchett, Turturro and the soundtrack almost save the day, but not quite. Given the cast, though, none of this may matter at the box office, especially if the film is pitched at its most obvious target: those who do like a nice story, and isn't that Blanchett girl good'