The rampant soft lighting, flamboyant wardrobes, and gaudy design that marks the imagery of Edouard Molinaro’s La Cage aux Folles is a bit of a ploy. As is the title, which translates to The Cage of Insane Women and serves as the name of the club owned by Renato (Ugo Tognazzi), an aging showman who also oversees the club’s popular drag show, the star of which, Albin (Michel Serrault), is Renato’s longtime lover and partner. The gouache, cheap-looking aesthetic belies the clever, comedic conceit of the film, which brings Albin and Renato into intimate contact with Simon Charrier (Michel Galabru), the leader of France’s ultra-conservative political party, when Renato’s son, Laurent (Remi Laurent), falls for Andrea (Luisa Maneri), Charrier’s only daughter.
The young lovers, however, are of little consequence in the film, which was adapted from Jean Poiret’s much-loved stage show by the director, French comedy hit-maker Francis Veber, and Poiret himself. What could have turned out to be a case of “too many cooks in the kitchen” actually gives the film a refreshing range of comedic devices, as the film delights in sight gags, sly one-liners, deadpan reactions, physical humor, and tawdry burlesque without feeling scatterbrained or indecisive. Most of the fun is had by the older generation, but the script and the performers play up the juvenilia that the engagement stirs in the adults. There’s a certain harshness to the way Renato refers to Andrea as a “slut” at first, but that’s nothing compared to the careless opportunism Charrier exercises when he decides to use the engagement as a bounce back into social respectability, following his close colleague’s sudden death in the bed of an under-aged, black prostitute.
Charrier is a merciless bigot, to say nothing of his snobbishness, misogyny, and undue anger, and Galabru plays him as an uncaring and power-obsessed buffoon. By rendering the character an unlovable troll, the filmmakers rightfully skewer those who grip onto tradition in the face of rampant progress, but it also hobbles the power and fullness of the narrative. Charrier is the only member of the bride’s family paid any genuine attention to in the script, and he isn’t even mildly empathetic. In this particular arena, The Birdcage, Mike Nichols’s lively remake of the film, written by the great Elaine May, proves to be a wiser, steadier, and funnier film, as May shows a healthy, balanced consideration of the bride’s brood and the dynamics of their family unit. Nevertheless, The Birdcage has no edge and feels almost eagerly moral, whereas La Cage aux Folles remains rambunctious and more capable of drawing blood.
Though its politics are still quite progressive, La Cage aux Folles is ultimately a work of classicism, crafted with precision and efficiently paced. Molinaro is no Sturges, but his film moves with an unlabored leanness and exactitude that one can find in The Palm Beach Story or, even more similarly, in Vincente Minnelli’s The Father of the Bride. To the filmmakers, repression is one of the greatest follies, which is never clearer than when, in the film’s hysterical climax, Albin attempts to impersonate Laurent’s mother at dinner. Albin attempts to harden his flamboyant act and proves incapable of keeping the lie going in the face of stone-cold humorlessness, and in this, the film is crucially interested in performance. To cool down the controversy surrounding his colleague’s death, Charrier is forced to look kind and family friendly, which he proves utterly poor at, while Renato, finally in control of his emotions after years of uncertainty, coasts easily in hetero waters. But Renato is shaken and ultimately emboldened by Albin’s ludicrous performance, and even finds himself in the position of having to create a diversion for the Charriers to leave without a press blitzkrieg. Molinero’s film praises and takes pleasure in performance, but never loses sight of the selfishness of those who insist on it and the steeled will required to drop the act.
Visually, the film is purposefully soft and dull looking, and in terms of fidelity, Criterion has gone much further than MGM’s original DVD transfer of the film. The depth and clarity of the image is stunning, especially prevalent in the interiors of Renato and Albin’s home. Colors are subdued and sharpness is inconsistent, but the film looks about as good as it could, considering the aesthetic. The LPCM 1.0 audio needs much less exceptions, and the details of the effects come out surprisingly clear. Dialogue is crisp and uncluttered in front, with the effects and Ennio Morricone’s delightful score mixing beautifully without overwhelming the talk.
When La Cage aux Folles originally opened in France, it starred Jean Poiret, the show’s writer, as Renato and Michel Serrault as Albin, and the two men had been working together as a comedy act for some time beforehand. The best supplement Criterion offers is three of the duo’s television appearances, including a clip of the television production of the film. It gives a good sense of the show’s origins and Poiret’s comedic sensibilities outside of his most popular work. A video interview with Edouard Molinaro gives a hearty bit of insight into the director’s relationship with his performers and the film’s popularity, both in France and America. Just as interesting is the video interview with professor and drag expert Laurence Senelick, who briefly discusses La Cage aux Folles place in the history of the performance style in theater and film, and how it helped ease perception and acceptance of drag. The booklet features an informative piece by David Ehrenstein on the film and the original show, and trailers are also included.
Criterion dolls up Edouard Molinaro’s spirited international hit with a routinely excellent A/V transfer and a smattering of hugely entertaining extras.