The Closet [Le Placard]

| July 16, 2001

If your life sucks, try coming out of the closet. Francois Pignon, an milquetoast of an accountant at a French condom factory, takes this advice to heart, and what follows are the hilarious consequences of dramatically altering public perception of a person who hasn’t changed an inch. This intelligent, humorous and impeccably made film comes to you, courtesy of Francis Veber of La Cage aux Folles fame. And what La Cage was as a social statement in the late 1970s, Le Placard is in 2001. (The Birdcage, the American version of La Cage, came out in 1996, by which time the gay lifestyle was no longer as exotic, nor gay-bashing as popular.) Both are straightforward (no pun intended) but droll reflections on society with no messages blaring from a loudspeaker. But above all, Le Placard is an immensely entertaining movie.
Daniel Auteuil (Girl on a Bridge, Manon of the Spring) stars as Pignon, whose biggest problem is his insignificance. From co-workers to his teenage son, everyone considers him a drag, a bore, in short, the stereotypical accountant. His wife has deserted him, his son won’t visit him, and so when he learns that he is about to be fired, Pignon decides to take his life. New neighbor and ex-industrial psychologist Belone (Michel Aumont) convinces him that there may be a way to make things better: pretend to be gay.
Belone spreads the rumor via digitally altered pictures and the natural propensity for water cooler talk, and though Pignon remains his unassuming, shy self, everyone around him is suddenly more interested in him. And of course, he can’t be fired: the company cannot risk losing one of its major demographics! This is not a “good guy, bad guy” movie and Auteuil never once tries to endear himself to the audience. But he is the catalyst that makes us laugh at the effect of all those mandatory workshops in sensitivity training. On the one side, is the company director (Jean Rochefort) who is petrified of a misstep and treats the newly-outed Pignon with a bewildered warmth. On the other, is Santini (Gerard Depardieu) the rugby-loving bigot who is convinced by the PR man (Thierry Lhermitte) that he will lose his job unless he kisses up to Pignon. In between is a range of secondary characters, all of whom are confounded by the “new” Pignon. An appearance at the Gay Pride Parade, wearing a pink condom hat and waving shyly, makes Pignon a hero with his son. Both his beautiful but bitchy wife and his sexy blonde boss are intrigued, though they express this quite differently. Pignon has more visibility and clout than ever.
A subplot shows Santini going over the top in his effort to be nice to Pignon: it starts with a lunch and a pink cashmere sweater, and climaxes in a near-courtship. Rather than being a distraction, Depardieu’s empathetic acting makes this lets-teach-the-brute-a-lesson storyline a perfect complement to lampooning political correctness. (The stereotyped bigot apparently did cause some controversy). Auteuil is utterly convincing as your average Francois, who likes the scheme to get ahead in life, and is gamely trying to be “that kind of guy,” while Aumont’s character adds a touch of feel-good: he was fired for being gay, so this may be revenge.
The ensemble acting is truly phenomenal. Having said that, I have to reserve my most effusive praise for the director, Veber. The biggest strength of the movie is that every time the plot is heading towards the inevitable, he throws in a dash of spice. In badminton, the flick of a deft wrist can be the difference between a champion and an also-ran. Veber’s sense of timing and scale shows as nimble a mind. None of the situations seem incomplete, yet none is permitted to outlast its flash of humor. The character of Francois Pignon has appeared before, including the almost as funny Le Diner de Cons (1997). But the humor in Le Placard has been refined to a point. There are no loose ends, no extra shots, no extra characters, and most wonderfully, no mushiness and basically, no explicit message. As soon as it becomes unrealistic for the charade to have gone undetected for so long, it is unmasked. And the ending, the final dusting of cinnamon on that thoroughly satisfying latte, is as sharp as the rest of the film. It is incredibly difficult to make a really good movie with this simple a plot, but – students in Film 101, listen up – this IS the way to do it.

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