Edouard Molinaro’s 1978 film La Cage Aux Folles is – if one is to judge by the number of adaptations it has had – one of the great farces of the modern age, and perhaps one of the more important queer films to come out of Europe. It started its life as a 1973 play, was adapted to the screen in 1978, spawned a sequel in 1980, was adapted into a musical by Harvey Fierstein in 1983 (which was revived in 2004 and again in 2010), and a second film sequel was made in 1985. In 1996, it was remade in America as The Birdcage, and a French TV version of the musical was produced in 2011.
La Cage Aux Folles was just released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection, which will perhaps allow audiences to review this once-revolutionary comedy. They may discover, however, as I did, that the film comes across as quaintly clunky. La Cage Aux Folles may present a positive view of gay couples, but it also revels in gay stereotypes, following as it does a shrieking and hysterical drag queen, mining comedy from his tendency to bicker and complain and bellow like an old queen. Yes, there are mincing and shrieking drag queens in real life, but it is also a stereotype that filmmakers all too often apply to any and all homosexual men.
The story of the film is perhaps well-known. Renato is a 50-year-old gay man living in Saint-Tropez with his longtime lover/practical husband Albin, the star act in the drag revue that Renato owns. Renato’s straight 20-year-old son has just become engaged to the daughter of a conservative politician, and, to impress the would-be in-laws, Renato and Albin must pretend to be straight at an upcoming dinner party. The comedy is based in the gay men’s farcical attempt to cover up their sexuality in the face of the bigoted in-laws.
A refreshing detail is that the bigots are not seen as sympathetic. Indeed, their scenes are depicted as comically austere, and their strictness is buffoonish and risible. The interiors of their house are as blank and ascetic as Renato’s is flamboyant. At the end of the day, La Cage Aux Folles is less about bigotry and prejudice as it is about fashion and lifestyle choice. Even though the plot centers on a gay couple trying to closet themselves in a social situation, ultimately is is the bigots who need to come around to them.
All of this open-mindedness and gay visibility is well and good, I just wish the film were better. When Mike Nichols made The Birdcage in 1996 (a film, I must admit, I am more familiar with than the original), he essentially transposed every scene, almost exactly, only infusing it with more color, life, and a much more madcap tone. What Nichols did was take something that was mannered and intellectually farcical, and made it hilariously and energetically chaotic. In this rare instance, the remake is better than the original.
Indeed, La Cage Aux Folles can strike the modern viewer as being a mite bit mean-spirited toward Albin. Albin is the wronged party throughout. His adopted son wants him to leave the house, his husband wants him to hide away, and no one seems to like him. The audience is supposed to laugh at Albin’s queeny behavior, and not sympathize with his plight. In the remake, the son character was allowed a brief moment to redeem himself, and announce the Albin character as his legitimate mother. In this original, there is no such emotional catharsis.
What’s more, the mincing minority butler in this version is a comically racist black caricature who sings “Ol’ Man River,” and refers to his bosses as “white master.” I understand that the film was sending up racism and not depicting it, but the depiction is, well, a little bit icky.
This is not to say that La Cage Aux Folles doesn’t have it’s funny moments. The final dinner scene is playful and funny in all its frantic double-backs and sudden surprises. You will laugh. It’s just that the film, as a drama and as a farce and as an emotional experience, feels slight and insubstantial.
The special features on the Blu-ray are all about the role of drag and sex in movies, and the function this film played in the history of the gay rights movement. The enclosed essay by David Ehrenstein is also similarly insightful.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.