13th Apr2018

‘La Cage Aux Folles’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Serrault, Michel Galabru, Carmen Scarpitta, Remi Laurent | Written by Jean Poiret, Marcello Danon, Francis Veber, Edouard Molinaro | Directed by Edouard Molinaro

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Modern audiences may be familiar with The Birdcage, the 1996 US remake starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. That film’s success should not have been a surprise because two decades earlier Edouard Molinaro made this French-language breakout hit.

The mainstream press ignored it. The gay media saw it as offensive stereotyping. The public loved it. Is La Cage Aux Folles an LGBTQ cinematic landmark or an exercise in camp mockery? Perhaps it’s a bit of both. One moment you’re congratulating the film for its sophisticated and normalising depictions of gay existence, and the next you’re thrown another crass and tasteless bum joke.

The setting is St Tropez, and we open with a cut-price Scorsese tracking shot, taking us into the titular cabaret club. The manager, Renato (Ugo Tognazzi), is in his comfort zone, dealing with divas and keeping the show going in front of a rowdy crowd. These are his kind of problems. But then his son, Laurent (Remi Laurent), comes to him with a less comfortable conundrum. Laurent is going to marry Andrea (Luisa Maneri). But first Renato must meet – and impress – Andrea’s ultra-conservative parents.

Andrea’s father, Simon (Michel Galabru), works for a political party named the Union of Moral Order. Their president has just had a heart attack, following sex with an underage black prostitute. Andrea’s mum (Carmen Scarpitta) believes a big white wedding to the son of a diplomat (that’s the job title Andrea gives to Renata) will restore Simon’s reputation. They plan a visit to meet Andrea’s new in-laws.

There’s a delightfully glaring visual juxtaposition between the gaudy modernist gleam of Renato’s apartment and the sludgy browns of the Charriers’ house. This is not a film of subtleties. It’s pure farce. And pure fantasy: the summer vacation location; the contrived comedic events; the literal staginess of the setting; the extremely heightened characterisation. Perhaps that’s why it always felt so safe for mainstream consumption.

But this is no simple, Carry On-style ‘70s sex comedy. Yes, the clothes and the hair and the bizarre, electronic kazoo lounge music date it. And yes, there are some startlingly misguided attempts at humour, like when Laurent is introduced as if he might be Renata’s young lover; or where jokes are made of domestic abuse and hate crimes. But there are also some wonderful lines (“This may be a drag revue, but it still should be great drama!”), and moments of brilliant comic nuance – like when Renata is gently trying to push his partner Albin (Michel Serrault) to take a tactical holiday, or where Albin tries to feel comfortable in his first dinner suit. The broader comedy – for example, the climactic Mrs Doubtfire moment – are predictably cringeworthy.

Proudly resistant to changing himself for the sake of others, but prepared to go the distance for his blood, as Renata, Tognazzi gives a wryly amusing and louche performance, incongruously playing it down. Serrault lurches to the other extreme, playing Albin (AKA Zaza Napoli) as an ultra-camp clown-queen. But he does it with enormous skill; and it must be said that, for all his ridiculous flamboyance and shrieking, Albin is at least a sympathetic character. Galabru plays Simon as a grotesque troll: a bully and a coward in equal measure, who gets his comeuppance in the most degrading and ironic way. Throughout, meanwhile, women are sidelined, limited to the buzzkill roles.

Ultimately, La Cage Aux Folles is confrontational in its setup and its humour, but inconclusive in its outcomes. It’s silliness shields it from criticism. As a stepping stone in the difficult history of LGBTQ representation in mainstream film, it has its place. As a comedy film to be enjoyed from the vantage point of modern values, however, it’s more troubling. It looks and feels like a fable to be updated from generation to generation – and that at least positions this adaptation as a fascinating cinematic artefact.

Amongst the relatively minimal extras, director Molinaro talks about the struggle to bring Jean Poiret’s 1973 play to the screen – and we get archival footage from said play. Professor Laurence Selenick explains the history of drag culture, and gives context to the film’s 1978 release. Finally, there’s the remarkably spoiler-tastic trailer.

La Cage Aux Folles is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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