Criterion // 1978 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 10th, 2013
The comedy that comes out of the closet!
The irony of so much discussion of the frivolity of fashion is that it's used to denigrate women: look at those ridiculous heels, all that makeup, and those clothes so tight they can barely breath. The irony, of course, is that most of what we today consider women's fashion began as men's fashion. You don't even have to go back that far. I'm not talking about those heathen Egyptians thousands of years ago; I'm talking a century or two ago in the English and French world. Dudes wearing heels to appear taller, corsets to appear slimmer, and rocking makeup to hide hangovers. Now, though, any guy who dares to dress in anything considered feminine must be gay. While Kanye West can rock a kilt (though he has to call it a kilt and not a skirt, and it caused him angst in interviews), the average man on the street has a pretty narrow set of clothes he can wear without derision. La Cage Aux Folles shows us how silly so many of our ideas of what's normal really are, especially when it comes to fashion, gender, and sexuality. More importantly, it shows us how far we've come and how far we still have left to go.
Renato (Ugo Tognazzi, Le grande bouffe) owns a nightclub whose biggest attraction is his partner, drag performer Albin (Michel Serraut, Diabolique). Things are going well until Renato's son from a previous relationship (Remi Laurent) shows up to announce he's getting married -- to a woman (Luisa Maneri). That's all well and good, but the future daughter-in-law's family is very conservative, with a father the head of a morals defense group and cultural attache. Renato decides the best thing to do is assume the guise of the straight man, exiling Albin, "straightening" up their apartment, and recruiting his son's mother to play hostess for a family dinner. Naturally things are not that simple.
It's the twenty-first century -- gay marriage is slowly gaining acceptance in various states, there are gay characters on a number of major television shows, and many, many people have gay friends and neighbors. It might reasonably be asked why the contemporary viewer would want to watch La Cage aux Folles, a thirty-five-year-old film about the plight of a homosexual couple. There are two big reasons, the first of which is that it's not only a film about a homosexual couple. More importantly, it's a film about family.
Obviously this is a film that was a huge international success and raised the visibility of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle for lots of viewers, but at the bottom it's a film about family and acceptance. It's a film for anyone who has worried about introducing a partner at Thanksgiving 'cause Uncle Jerry drinks too much or Aunt Edna always smells like vinegar. In the case of La Cage aux Folles the "problem" is homosexuality, but the situation is one that lots of people can relate to, from conservatives in the family to crazy traditions involving firearms and hard liquor.
More importantly, though,La Cage Aux Folles is a film with a giant human heart. It's a film that recognizes our foibles (or the folles, or follies of the title) and laughs gently with us rather than at us. The need for acceptance is near-universal, as is the desire to make our children happy. Just about everyone can relate to at least one of the characters in the film, and it's as if the film is aware of that -- everyone is guilty of something, but if we all accept that then we can learn to get along -- or so the film seems to be saying.
Of course there are laughs a plenty. Another of the film's strengths is the breadth of its humor. Many films rely on one kind of move to generate laughs, but La Cage Aux Folles has everything from broad slapstick to sly linguistic humor. Some of the humor is uncomfortable situational humor, and sometimes it's funny about stuff we all do.
Though many will be more familiar with the American remake, there's definitely something to be said for watching the original. Much of the humor of The Birdcage comes from the outrageous personas of Nathan Lane and Robin Williams, and the more low-key performances of Serrault and Tognazzi give the story a bit more weight than the remake.
Criterion have done their usual great work with La Cage Aux Folles (Blu-ray). The 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is taken from a well-scrubbed original interpositive. The elements are in great condition, with few examples of damage to be found. The image itself is well-detailed, with a solid grain structure. Colors have that late-'70s look to them, which is appropriate. The best thing about the transfer is that it reproduces the film's glowing, gauzy cinematography without resorting to DNR to smooth things out. Black levels are great, especially in the club scenes. The LPCM 1.0 mono track does a fine job with the French dialogue, which is clean and clear throughout. The film really shines when Ennio Morricone's score comes, giving us great depth and dynamic range.
The extras for this set are split into the new and the old. The old stuff is represented by a trio of performances featuring Serrault and Jean Poiret (who wrote the play on which La Cage Aux Folles is based). The pair regularly appeared together as a comedic duo, and these excerpts represent two short films from 1959, alongside a 1973 television broadcast of the original play. The new is represented by a pair of interviews conducted by Criterion with Eduoardo Molinaro and Laurence Senelick. Molinaro, the film's director, spends discussing the genesis of the film, some of the difficulties with the production, and his work in general. Senelick is a scholar who has written extensively on drag and queer cinema culture, and his interview focuses on the impact of La Cage Aux Folles's representations and its reception in America. The film's trailer is also included. The usual Criterion booklet includes an informative essay by David Ehrenstein.
There are, of course, two dangers with La Cage Aux Folles -- any time a film is both a comedy and represents a minority viewpoint there's the risk that someone will cry "stereotype" or that someone else will assume that the film adequately represents all people of that minority. Some contemporary viewers may return to La Cage Aux Folles and find its portrayals a bit too stereotypical, with the flamboyant drag queen and the scantily dressed manservant. I think the film does what it can to mitigate these problems, but viewers sensitive to stereotyping might find the film hard to sit through.
La Cage Aux Folles is a beautiful human film about the difficulties of family and love, which has aged remarkably well and fits perfectly into Criterion's mission. Fans of The Birdcage, drag, comedy, and the heartbreak of family will find something to appreciate in this French original. This excellent La Cage Aux Folles (Blu-ray) presentation makes a recommendation for purchase or rental really easy.
Flamboyant, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Archival Shorts