Coming Out of the Closet in Civilized French Fashion

Francis Veber’s The Closet dances around the subject of misperceived gayness in the workplace with boulevard insouciance that presupposes most of the nervous laughs coming from a predominantly straight audience. Still, thanks to the flair for farce shared by a talented French cast, the film floats with the buoyancy of a delicious French soufflé.

The film begins with a few quick brushstrokes of characterization to establish François Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) as a nebbishy accountant at a condom factory, from which he is about to be fired simply for being so boring that his co-workers avoid sitting with him in the cafeteria. His wife has already divorced him for the same shortcoming, and his 17-year-old son can’t be bothered to visit him because he is not “cool” enough.

Finding his life of perpetual humiliation insupportable, Pignon leans alarmingly over the balcony of his apartment, prompting his next-door neighbor, Belone (Michel Aumont), to intervene with a sure-fire stratagem to keep Pignon from losing his job. Belone, a retired corporate psychologist, just happens to have on hand a gay-oriented magazine with a photo of a provocative hand-on-bare-ass gay embrace. Belone proposes that they substitute Pignon’s face for the face of the gay reveler, send copies of the incriminating photo anonymously to Pignon’s superiors at the factory and wait for developments.

The cream of the jest is that the quietly, unobtrusively heterosexual Pignon doesn’t have to alter his habitual behavior in the slightest. He doesn’t have to indulge in giggle-provoking sissy mannerisms in the 30’s and 40’s Hollywood comic tradition of Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, Hugh Herbert, Eric Blore, Billy De Wolfe and Grady Sutton. The whispered rumors will do the job unassisted.

Indeed, his co-workers insist that they suspected Pignon’s sexual preference long before the telltale picture was circulated. Surest of all is Félix Santini (Gérard Depardieu), who is the most outspoken homophobe on the planet. As the coach of the company soccer team, he forces Pignon to join and then maliciously injures him in a collision just to prove a point. The two men now loathe each other and don’t bother to conceal their mutual hostility.

Unfortunately for Santini, the company director, Kopel (Jean Rochefort), decides that it would be bad business for a condom company with a large gay clientele to fire a gay employee. Subsequently the publicity director, Guillaume (Thierry Lhermitte), suggests to Santini that his own job may be in jeopardy if he persists in making homophobic remarks. Guillaume is actually playing a prank on the humorless Santini by inducing him to make friends with the puzzled Pignon. As it turns out, though Santini’s job is never really at risk, the practical joke gets out of hand, with Santini coming out of his own closet, previously locked by his extreme homophobia. When Pignon rejects Santini’s unexpected advances, the coach suffers a nervous breakdown after attempting to strangle Pignon out of sexual frustration.

Meanwhile, Pignon has gotten over his cold, selfish ex-wife and found a new love in his woman boss, Mlle. Bertrand (Michèle Laroque). In the end, the only overt homosexual in the film is the elderly Belone, who becomes Pignon’s friend and adviser. Santini, of course, is the only character who changes his sexual colors in the course of the action. At a time when popular cable shows like Six Feet Under and Sex and the City are pushing new envelopes in same-sex relationships and there’s a new gay and lesbian film festival being announced every time one picks up a press release, The Closet can hardly be said to be breaking new ground on the subject. Some people may even complain that it is complacent, if not actually regressive, about our perceptions of gay sex–in other words, that it appeals to outmoded notions of normality in sexual orientation.

The character of Pignon as an everyman is the key to the film’s attitude toward its subject. Mr. Auteuil makes Pignon a sympathetic character with an innate dignity, even when he is talked into appearing in a Gay Pride parade with an oversize plastic condom as a cap. In the beginning, when he is driven to the verge of suicide, we want him to find happiness. This is the sentimental core of the comedy. If his company made anything but condoms, there would be less plausibility to the panic arising from the potential firing of a gay employee. One may describe this as comedy construction or comic contrivance.

But a boulevard comedy cannot overdo the sentimentality. Hence, when Pignon and Mlle. Bertrand finally decide to do it, the sexual coupling is shown from a high overhead angle in full view of a visiting delegation of Japanese businessmen being led around by Kopel, the company director. Almost at a loss for words, Kopel explains lamely that Pignon and Mlle. Bertrand are “official testers” of the product. The point is that the point of view never shifts back down to the entangled lovers. For the moment, they are merely creatures of a gag that intrigues the onlookers without embarrassing the participants. Pignon’s dignity is preserved, his life is enlivened by romance, and yet he continues to provoke outrageous responses in others. He serves as a catalyst, if you will, to expose the hypocritical bigotries of others, but this is also a matter of contrivance. How did such a decent, generous human being function for so long in the company of such petty backbiters? This is a question we must never ask in a boulevard comedy, for fear of stifling all the laughter in every situation.

The comic plight of Santini is something else again. He starts out as a malignant homophobe, with the burly physique of a born bully, but before we can start hissing him for his objectionable attitudes, he begins disintegrating before our eyes as he abandons his marriage to pursue Pignon in the most humiliating ways imaginable. Though Pignon is too “straight” to accommodate Santini’s newfound desires, he takes pity on him when Santini collapses, and even takes his hand to lead him into a company party welcoming him back. Thus Pignon always manages to do the right thing, no matter how it may look to others.

The laughs and chuckles come from the margins and nuances of the characters, and the experienced actors who play them avoid most of the pitfalls of broadness and grossness into which so many Hollywood farces fall out of sheer desperation. By contrast, The Closet is a thoroughly civilized French farce with ancient standards to maintain. I sincerely hope that it is not remade in Hollywood.

Early Retirement

Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast , from a screenplay by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, continues the march of malignant melodramas and larger-than-life evildoers across the summer moviegoing season. For some reason, most of the people who make movies seem convinced that the rest of us are dying to see psychopaths and sociopaths on the prowl, as if there were anything more we could learn about them beyond the fact that they exist and are therefore capable of making life miserable for people within their target range. Just listen to the 6 and 11 o’clock news long enough and you’ll be convinced that we are infested with beasts, sexy or not, and that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Having unloaded all my platitudinous moralizing for the season, I must concede that Sexy Beast , despite its silly and misleading title, is one of the more interesting efforts in its genre, though it has been somewhat overrated. Most of the buzz about the film has centered on Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan, a gangster villain with the longest and most elaborate buildup before his first entrance since Molière’s Tartuffe .

Gal (Ray Winstone) is a retired mobster enjoying the good life in a Spanish castle with his girlfriend, Jackie (Julianne White), and their two neighboring friends, Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Deedee (Amanda Redman). There is just a suggestion of lazy decadence in the way Gal takes his sun baths on the edge of his luxurious pool; he is clearly out of shape–comically, self-indulgently so. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a giant boulder comes rolling down an adjacent hill, just missing Gal’s head as it goes crashing to the bottom of his pool. Talk about foreshadowing. Nothing seems to go right or easy for Gal after that seemingly supernatural intrusion into his existence. Don Logan shows up soon after, virtually ordering him to come back to England for one more “job” with the gang. The dialogue crackles in the Spanish sun with the staccato terseness of early Pinter and early Mamet. The shaven-headed Logan exudes menace with every breath. It is only a matter of time before Gal will cave in to his wishes, or so it seems at first–that is, before Gal stiffens his resolve to stay retired. And then, just when Logan seems safely on a flight back to England, he causes such a disturbance on the plane that he is taken off and returned to the airport. When he returns to Gal’s villa a second time, he refuses to take no for an answer, and after a violent confrontation Logan is shot dead, and Gal is forced to return to the gang to cover his absence.

The gang leader, Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), is almost as sinister as Logan, and he is suspicious of Gal showing up without him, so that a murderous menace remains in the air even after Logan has been safely buried in Gal’s boulder-dented pool. The caper itself is somewhat anticlimactic and mystifying, as it involves drilling underwater into a vault where, among other items of loot, a safety-deposit box full of crematorium ashes dusts up the water. An aura of old gangsterdom casts its own cloud over the proceedings, which remain moody and fatalistic to the end.