La Cage Aux Folles, Blu-ray (1978/2013)Cast: Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Serrault Director: Edouard Molinaro Studio: MGM/United Artists/ The Criterion Collection 671 (9/10/13) Video: 1.66:1 semi-widescreen 1080p HD color Audio: French PCM mono Subtitles: English Extras: New interview with director, Archival footage of Serrault and Jean Poiret—writer and star of the original stage production, New interview with Laurence Senelick, author of The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre, French & U.S. trailers, Printed booklet with artwork and essay by critic David Ehrenstein, more… Length: 96 minutes Rating: *****
Who would have thought back in 1978 that that this minimal-pretentions French farce would be one of the opening shots in the long-running struggle for gays to fight prejudice which has resulted in an expanding number of states authorizing gay marriage? Le Cage Aux Folles was based on a stage play which seemed to demand filmic coverage. It became the American (and lesser, in spite of Robin Williams and Nathan Lane) remake of 1996: The Birdcage, two sequels and even a Broadway musical. Some consider this the funniest film ever made—right up there with Some Like It Hot (which incidentally also deals with cross-dressing, but in a quite different way). The similarity is pointed out by one of the talking heads in the excellent extras.
Renato and Albin are a middle-aged gay couple living above a glitzy drag club in St. Tropez. Renato is the manager and Albin the star performer as Zaza. Much is made of Albin’s over-the-top sensitivities and emotional crises (he’s very effeminate in real life), and how Renato has come to expect and handle them as best he can. Renato’s one son comes to visit and at first one may think he is an adulterous liason, the way Renato greets him. But then it becomes clear the boy is his son from a very brief marriage encounter, and is announcing his upcoming marriage. He wants to bring his wife-to-be’s ultra conservative family to meet Renato and Albin. Of course this brings up a number of problems.
The two attempt to hide their sexual identities, partly since the girl’s father is high in politics and head of some sort of institute to preserve morals. To say they are not very successful is an understatement. Renato tells Albin to “walk like John Wayne.” You get the idea. Albin tries hard but just can’t do it. One hilarious scene has Renato showing him how to butter toast and drink tea in a masculine manner, but then Renato picks up his teacup and stretches out his pinky just like he has told Albin not to do. Also hilarious is the hurried replacement of all the suggestive sculpture and artwork around the apartment with straight-looking liturgical items such as hard chairs and giant crosses. And then there’s also Jacob, a black maid in brief suggestive attire who can’t wear shoes. Renato attempts to secure the assistance of his ex-wife to play the mother and replace Albin. But then when the family comes to visit, both mothers show up (Albin doing a sort of Charlie’s Aunt role) and hilarious complications ensue.
The irony is laid on thickly but cleverly; the French humor is more subtle and less in-your-face than the American versions. There is also a humanity about the humor that is missing in the American versions. Italian actor Tognazzi reportedly didn’t like the role, but he is perfect as the beleaguered guy attempting to hold everything together. It’s a delightful film which deserves a place in the pantheon of great films. I understand that previous DVDs of the film were pretty bad transfers, so this one doubly justifies the Criterion re-do. Oddly, one of the experts in the extras says that the film originally wasn’t really understood by French audiences but was a success in the U.S.