La Cage aux Folles

La Cage aux follesSynopsis: One of “the most successful foreign films ever shown in the U.S.” (The Wall Street Journal), this “wildly hilarious” (Independent Film Journal) French farce is giddy, unpretentious and an entirely lovable film” (Time Magazine)!

When young Laurent returns to exotic St. Tropez, he bears big news for his beloved father, Renato. Laurent has found the girl of his dreams and they are engaged! What’s more, she and her family are on their way over for dinner at Renato’s home to meet the in-laws-to-be. This traditional meeting of families seems typical, but because this ultraconservative family will be expecting to meet Renato and wife, they’ll never be prepared for the shock of meeting Renato and his flamboyant, campy, outrageous lover – and drag-queen – Albin! So in a great effort to please his son, Renato asks Albin for the performance of a lifetime…setting up an unforgettable evening that is charged and ready to detonate an explosion of zaniness and absurdity.

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La Cage aux Folles 7.75

eyelights: the French setting. the plot. Michel Serrault
eyesores: the @$$hole son. Michel Serrault

I remember the ‘La Cage aux folles’ series from when I was a kid. The films were extremely popular, so I kept seeing the posters everywhere. I had no idea what they were about, but the final installment in the trilogy came out in cinemas at a time when I was old enough to take notice of the men in drag.

I seriously didn’t know what to make of it. Call me sheltered or naïve if you must, but I was left uncomfortable by the kitschy drag look of the characters. It may even have had a long-term effect on me: even though I couldn’t care less, on principle or morally, flamboyant drag queens still make me uncomfortable.

So, needless to say, I never felt the pull of ‘La Cage aux folles’.

After seeing ‘The Birdcage‘ for a second time a few months ago, I decided that it would be nice to finally get over my aversion, irrational as it is, and finally see the one that started it all (nota bene: it was originally a play, before being a film). I placed a request at my local library and waited patiently for my turn to come.

I got it the other day and, feeling a little blue, decided to ramp it up to the top of the list; I figured that if ‘The Birdcage’ could elicit laughs, then the French one would no doubt perk me up.

It did exactly that.

In watching ‘La Cage aux folles’, I was surprised by how similar the remake was to the French classic. I half-expected that much of the story would be adapted for the American market, but it turns out that only the location and a few minor details were changed – everything else remained the same. That was comforting given my mood, and it was interesting for comparative purposes.

Both films revolve around the visit of the son, who plans to get married. He’s the offspring of the macho one, Renato, but he was raised by both he and his partner Albin, the more effeminate one. The problem is that the boy’s fiancé comes from an extremely conservative family and they are planning to come meet with them. Given their lifestyle, which includes owning a drag club, the boy is in a bind. He asks his father for help.

It’s a comedy, obviously, as is the American one, but it doesn’t get mired in farce, thereby turning these characters into cartoons. It would have been easy to do, given that male homosexuality was still the butt of jokes back in the ’70s (no pun intended… honest!), but the approach was tasteful and respectful at once. Most of the humour is situational, with some flourishes that come from the characters having untraditional tastes or ways of being.

The key differences between this and the American remake are in the way that the boy’s biological mother gets involved in the meeting between the two families and the way in which her arrival throws things out of whack. While the subsequent gags were slightly over-the top, the laughs they elicited were different and quite amusing. Another difference is that I found the son more of a selfish, smug @$$hole in this one (although I recall disliking him in the remake as well).

Otherwise, the film is pretty much the same thing, beat for beat – except with a French vibe.

What I’ve found is that, although the key characters are the same, I preferred the French interpretations; they felt more real to me. It’s not to say that they were entirely realistic, though: from time to time, Michel Serrault (who plays Albin) reacted in far too an outrageous manner for my taste, screaming wildly when even remotely startled. This fell into caricature category and annoyed me slightly.

However, I nonetheless preferred his version over Nathan Lane’s. Although I find that both Robin Williams and Nathan Lane were perfectly cast and like them as actors, they were played it slightly too kitschy for my tastes. For reasons that I can’t quite articulate, I feel that the French/Italian duo is slightly more grounded, more believable. The differences are subtle, nuanced, but there’s nonetheless a distinction between the two.

And this is the key reason why, although I enjoyed ‘The Birdcage’, I would watch ‘La Cage aux folles’ first if given the chance. For all intents and purposes, they’re the same thing. But, being that the pictures hinge on the performances and, given that I like the French ones a mite more, I have a penchant for this one. Is it enough to want to watch the two sequels? I’m not so sure about that.

But, who knows? It’s conceivable that I will someday want to explore ‘La Cage’ further.

Stay tuned and find out!

Date of viewing: March 3, 2013

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