A gay couple attempts to play it straight to fool their conservative future in-laws, who think their daughter is about to marry the son of an important diplomat. That plot was the subject of the 1996 Robin Williams hit The Birdcage. That movie was a remake of the 1978 French film La Cage aux Folles. Now available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, this groundbreaking film is an examination of conformity and acceptance in mainstream society. La Cage Aux Folles presents its more serious subject matter in a lighthearted tone that draws the audience in with its engaging characters and relatable situations.
Renato (Ugo Tagnazzi) is the owner of the La Cage aux Folles, a popular drag club on the French Riviera. Renato takes his job very seriously, trying to present the best possible show to his patrons. Hindering Renato’s endeavors is the temperamental star of the show, Zaza (Michael Serrault). Zaza, whose real name is Albin, is also Renato’s longtime partner. Albin’s tantrums are a constant source of aggravation for Renato, both professionally and personally. Renato and Albin are presented as a typical old married couple. They bicker but their love for each other goes unspoken, until Albin demands it from Renato. This gives the characters a familiar feel, making them more relatable for general audiences.
When Renato’s son Laurent (Rémi Laurent), who is the product of a brief affair Renato had with a fellow actress, announces he is marrying his girlfriend,the pair act with the same apprehension any parents would. They fear Laurent is too young and that he and the girl don’t know each well enough to marry. Nonetheless, they suddenly become faced with the undesirable prospect of meeting the future in-laws. As it turns out Laurent’s soon-to-be father-in-law is an ultra-conservative public figure who won’t accept Laurent’s gay parents. So what is to be done? Laurent requests his two dads pretend to be straight. He even requests Albin leave his own home while the in-laws visit.
One of the flaws of this film is that Laurent never seems to realize that he is doing the wrong thing. There is never a moment where Laurent apologizes for attempting to pretend his parents are something else. It’s unfortunate because the interplay between the two families is very good, it’s just that the payoff in the end that is weak. Instead of leaving, Albin agrees to pretend to be Laurent’s uncle. The plan backfires when Albin is unable to act manly enough. Luckily his experience as a drag queen helps save the day, to hilarious effect.
What is touching is that Renato and Albin are willing to do anything for their son’s happiness. It’s sad Laurent is unable to appreciate it, but that can probably be chalked up to the naivety of youth. One other minor quibble with the film is that the girlfriend (Luisa Maneri) and mother-in-law (Carmen Scarpitta) are hardly characters in the film. They are there only as props for the story with nothing of consequence to say. Michel Galabru does a good job of playing the constantly perplexed father-in-law who is always one step behind the joke. He is a bit of a caricature, but he has some very funny scenes as the situation unfolds.
At first glance the MPEG-4 AVC encoded 1080p transfer might appear to have some noticeable flaws. There are some apparent scratches and dirt on the print. The picture is also soft and a bit grainy. However, it is a big improvement over previous releases. The picture is still clear and finely detailed. For this release, Criterion (as explained in the booklet) manually removed “thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches” from the print to create the best presentation possible. The lossless mono audio track (in French) is very good with no noticeable distortions or imperfections.
The set contains a combination of new and archive features. A 20-minute interview with director Edouard Molinaro was recorded specifically for this release. Molinaro discusses the making of this film and his relationships with the cast and crew. Another new interview with author Laurence Selenick provides insight on the degree to which this film impacted more commercially-oriented entertainment. Archival footage includes portions of three plays (including a1973 broadcast of the stage version of La Cage aux Folles) featuring Serrault and his comedy partner Jean Poiret. The earliest two, dating back to 1959, were first aired on French television.
La Cage aux Folles does a good job of conveying its message without hitting the audience over the head with it. In fact it’s pretty easy to forget the film even has a message. Nonetheless the film is a good reminder about appreciating what is good in your life, as well as accepting differences in those around us. The more subtle message of the film is in what Laurent needs to learn about appreciating the love his parents have for him and their willingness to compromise themselves so he can be happy.