“Procreation is wearing you out”
The fact The Birdcage proves an almost shot for shot remake thirty years later is a testament to La cage aux folles‘ quartet of writers if not to the original stage play’s creator Jean Poiret alone. This is how funny, resonate, and timeless the material remains—enough to even provide the basis for a 1983 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in between. Personally I give Mike Nichols‘ refresher the edge, but its exacting resemblance makes it hard not to love this 1978 production just as much. Édouard Molinaro‘s version is less farcical, playing the unique relationship dynamics for deeper drama and heartstring pulls not solely hinging on punch lines, but that’s not really a surprise considering when it was released. The laughs delivered still helped it remain the highest grossing foreign film in America for over a decade.
Its aforementioned writing quartet includes Poiret and Molinaro as well as Francis Veber and Marcello Danon. The story they’ve built surrounds a gay couple that lives above and owns the titular nightclub. Albin Mougeotte (Michel Serrault in the role he originated onstage) is Zaza, the star of the drag show. Renato Baldi (Ugo Tognazzi) is the businessman behind the scenes running things. They’ve been together for two decades of push and pull between the former’s depressive antics and latter’s constant frustration, raising Renato’s son Laurent (Rémi Laurent) along the way. While his engagement announcement to fiancé Andréa (Luisa Maneri) meets faux chagrin from his father, hers would actually have a problem with the union because Simon Charrier (Michel Galabru) is the Deputy Minister of The Union For Moral Order. Well, he would if he knew about it.
Knowing her conservative parents’ (rounded out by Carmen Scarpitta‘s Louise) reaction to discovering two gay men raised Laurent, Andréa spins a lie. While such a thing wouldn’t mean much until the wedding, it just so happens Simon’s party’s president has been found dead in the arms of a prostitute. In order to avoid the news vultures at his door seeking comment, the Charriers opportunistically sneak out to visit their daughter’s future in-laws. Hoping for a cultural attaché and housewife fit to provide the “white wedding” of family value able to erase the president’s scandal from public consciousness, it becomes Laurent’s task to fake appearances. This means turning Albin masculine or excising him altogether, toning down their home’s phallic-crazed décor, and recruiting his absentee birth mother (Claire Maurier‘s Simone) to act maternal for just one night. Dinner is served.
La cage aux folles feels more like a theatrical performance than The Birdcage despite three-quarters of both occurring inside one home. The quick transitions add to this fact because it’s as though we’re switching from one side of the stage to the next rather than transporting to a completely different locale. I felt it especially when crosscutting between the Baldis and Charriers as each child breaks the news of their nuptials. The jokes are expertly timed and the utilization of doors to either silence characters or increase humor by hearing their shrieks lends perfectly to this aesthetic. It actually brought to mind Nichols’ own stage-to-screen debut Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There’s a claustrophobic nature to what’s happening that brings us closer to the characters and forces us to really pay attention to their actions and motivations.
Tognazzi is the straight man throughout while Serrault hams it up (with Benny Luke‘s butler Jacob providing an irreverent comic relief bridging the gap). Underneath our laughter at these characterizations, however, is an unavoidable weightiness that risks driving Renato and Albin apart. There’s definite strain existing beyond their usually hyperbolic blowouts, one that Laurent’s cowardly request to have his father remove Albin from the equation instead of asking himself exacerbates. The story’s mainly a family drama in this way—working towards acknowledging how gender and blood mean nothing in the long run when opposed by love. But no matter how much love Albin shows Laurent, the boy and his father would rather buy into the ruse than admit the truth. They force Albin into a corner of inadequacy and obsolescence and that’s the worst tragedy of all.
While I like this added wrinkle of intrigue—Laurent never apologizes or feels bad for what he’s doing—there are too many instances of over-the-top excess to fully embrace it. I found the score a bit incongruous to some of the more dramatic scenes and Serrault plays Albin with such depth of emotion that watching him bare his soul before Jacob laughs uncontrollably is off-putting. The Birdcage‘s decision to go full-bore into farce gives it a consistency this one lacks if only by comparison. If Poiret et al scaled back the comedy to single out the social commentary beneath via Renato and Albin’s back and forth I might even give La cage aux folles the edge instead. Because it’s ultimately those humanizing moments of Serrault dehumanizing himself to be what he believes his stepson needs that resonate loudest.