Well, in Le Placard (The Closet), François Pignon (Daniel Auteil), whose name, fittingly, means "cogwheel," is about to be fired from his tedious job, he's lost the respect of his son, and he pines for the affections of his ex-wife. In order to keep what he has and regain what he has lost, he decides to become a fake homosexual, which is almost as good as being a real homosexual, except that you don't get as much throbbing man-flesh.
Strangely, the plan works: His company is afraid to fire him for fear of appearing homophobic. His boss (Michele Laroque), a comely woman who occasionally works up some disdain for him when she's not finding him laughable or non-existent, suddenly tries to seduce him. His coworkers fawn over him. Well, some of them try to beat the snot out of him, but most of them fawn over him. And his son, who had thought he was the biggest drag in the world, now thinks he's a groovy, super-cool (chouette!) swinger.
Like all great French cultural institutions, Le Placard borrows heavily from American sex-comedies of the late '50s and early '60s. It's got the office intrigue and witty wordplay of films like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, Pillow Talk and Pajama Game, thanks to a script (and direction) by Francis Veber.
It's also got France's best actor, Daniel Auteil. Auteil's commanding presence made The Widow of St. Pierre and The Girl on the Bridge two of the best French films of the last few years, and here he shows range by playing a guy with no commanding presence. It's kind of like watching Sylvester Stallone in Cop Land, only without the horrible memory of Rambo IV: The Dismembering buzzing through your head like a chainsaw.
Plus, it has Gerard Depardieu. The really weird thing about Depardieu is that he doesn't completely suck in a way that makes you want to run screaming for the exits while vomiting popcorn and jujubes. I mean, he doesn't suck like that in general. It's just in American movies that he sucks. In France, they rightly think of him as a great actor, and not in that way that they pretend to like Jerry Lewis because it pisses off Americans. Seriously, ask a French person whom you barely know if he likes Jerry Lewis and he'll say "yes." Ask a close French friend and he'll let on that nobody really likes Jerry Lewis. I'm not kidding. The whole thing is a joke. Seriously. Please believe me.
Anyway ... Depardieu is great as Felix Santini, a fellow employee of faux homosexual (faux-mo?) Pignon. Santini, fearing that he will lose his job because of his macho attitude, begins to cozy up to Pignon to show the bosses that he's not a homophobe. Desperately seeking to prove himself, he starts buying Pignon chocolates and pink sweaters until his wife leaves him and he starts to have some embarrassing personal revelations about his sexual orientation. This could easily be dopey slapstick, but with Depardieu's controlled insanity, it comes off as classy slapstick.
That's because the one thing French cinema has all over U.S. cinema is the quality of acting. The French directors don't mind working with beautiful young actors on occasion, but they seem to prefer beautiful young actors who can act. Let's just say that Keanu Reeves is lucky to be American.
The supporting cast proves this point. Laroque plays Pignon's boss, Mlle. Bertrand, with the kind of intense and yet disinterested evil that can only be called "French." Think of the kind of people who would surrender their capital to Nazis just so the art wouldn't get scratched in the bombing, and you have the basic idea.
Michel Aumont plays Pignon's neighbor, an elderly gay man who gives Pignon the idea to fake his sexuality. Aumont is an interesting contrast in this comic film, because he plays his character totally straight. I mean, not not gay, but not comic. He gives his character a kind of quiet sadness that keeps Le Placard from getting out of hand with its motif that all things gay are, you know, gay.
Sadly, the one thing that French films don't have these days, and haven't had since the death of Kieslowski (who, as much as the French would like to deny it, was not actually French), is greatness. Le Placard is a good film, and it's got a verbal wit that isn't often found in contemporary comedies, but its not a great film. One can't really expect most films to be great, but a country that produced La Jetée and L'Année Dernière à Marienbad has a lot to live up to.
To make up for their lack of greatness, French directors have recently taken to passing off pornography as cinema. I can't say this is an entirely bad thing, but the French film that's getting all the press these days is Baise-Moi, a violent, pornographic movie whose title literally means "Fuck Me," although it's being released in English-speaking countries under the considerably less offensive title "Rape Me."
It's nice to see that director Veber hasn't taken this route, partly because I have no interest in watching Daniel Auteil get it on with Gerard Depardieu, but mostly because what the world really needs now is a good, old-fashioned sex comedy.