La Cage aux Folles: Criterion Collection
September 17, 2013
La Cage aux Folles (1978) began as a very successful French play that ran for almost 1,800 performances at Paris’ Theatre du Palais-Royal from 1973 to 1978. Written by actor/playwright Jean Poiret, it was an outrageous farce that saw a flamboyant gay couple clash with a conservative family when their son is set to marry the daughter of the aforementioned blueblood couple. With the success of the play came plans to adapt it into a film, which became a huge hit in France.
La Cage aux Folles eventually made its way to the United States where it was a surprise success. As a result, two sequels were made and a Broadway musical starring Harvey Fierstein. In 1996, the inevitable Hollywood remake, entitled The Birdcage, was produced, written by none other than Elaine May and directed by Mike Nichols, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Needless to say, it too was a big hit.
Renalto (Tognazzi) is the manager of a snazzy drag club in Saint-Tropez. His partner, Albin (Serrault), is the venue’s star performer. We meet this middle-aged couple right in the middle of a show. The temperamental Albin is supposed to go on stage in ten minutes, but refuses to because he claims to be depressed. It is clear that the two men go through this routine on a regular basis. They bicker like an old married couple with Albin claiming that Renalto didn’t notice that he lost weight and that he doesn’t love him anymore.
Laurent (Laurent), Renalto’s son, shows up during Albin’s set to tell his father that he’s going to marry Andrea Charrier (Maneri), the prim and proper daughter of stuffy upper crust couple Louise and Simon, a member of the Union for Moral Order and who is constantly concerned with appearances. When suddenly faced with a crisis at work, Simon, with the help of Louise, decide to throw a lavish wedding for their daughter, but they want to meet Laurent’s parents first. Fearing that they would never approve of Renalto and Albin’s lifestyle, Andrea and Laurent tell her parents that his father is a cultural attaché and Albin is a housewife. Renalto and Albin agree to the ruse, but when the families meet, cracks in their faux conservative façade begin to show and much hilarity ensues as the culture clash becomes more and more apparent.
The give and take between Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault is excellent. Renalto is the more grounded and rational while Albin is the flighty diva. They make for a believable middle-aged gay couple in the way they interact with each other, utilizing a familiar short hand. They also have excellent comic timing, especially Serrault in the scene where Renalto tries to teach Albin how to act like a straight man through the simple task of buttering toast. Ultimately, La Cage aux Folles is about being true to one’s self and not changing or conforming for others. It does this under the auspices of farce, but this does not dilute the message – just makes it more palatable. In terms of gender stereotypes and gay politics, the film was way ahead of its time and this may explain why it continues to endure and entertain after all these years.
Criterion’s Blu-Ray transfer retains the film’s filmic grainy texture while also eliminating any blemishes or other kinds of damage. La Cage aux Folles looks as good as I imagine it did back in the day.
There is an interview with director Edouard Molinaro who talks about his career, his love of cinema and how he got into the business. Naturally, he talks about making the film, including the challenges of working with the two lead actors. Originally, Molinaro wasn’t interested in making the film for fear of being pigeon-holed as a comedy director, but when his last film was not a box office success, he realized that he needed a hit.
Before making La Cages aux Folles, Jean Poiret was part of a popular comic duo along with Michel Serrault. Included are two of their comedy sketches from French television in the 1950s and an excerpt from a televised broadcast of the play.
Professor Laurence Senelick examines La Cages aux Folles within the context of drag performance throughout history while also discussing its impact on gender politics. He provides fascinating background on the history of drag performance before shifting focus to the film.
Finally, there are two trailers for the film.