By Diana (Rochester, NY, USA)
Whether you are a man who loosens his tie, or a man who washes off layers of makeup and glitter, at the end of the day – quite literally – we are all the same.
This is the main takeaway from La Cage aux Folles, a film released in 1978 by French director Eduardo Molinaro. Based on Jean Poiret’s 1973 play of the same name, the film tells the story of two young lovers introducing their parents to each other for the first time. Aging gay nightclub owner Renato and his longtime partner and muse Albin must put on an entirely different kind of show for their son’s soon-to-be in-laws, a conservative political family from Paris who knows nothing of their lifestyle. What energizes the film is not the youthful lovers or a tense clashing of beliefs over dinner. Instead, it is the relationship between Renato and Albin that breathes life and fun into the film, their interactions equal parts sassy and affectionate.
It’s no surprise that this story of a gay couple and their family dynamic emerged from 1970’s French cinema. For years we uptight Americans have been notoriously teased for not being more sexually open with our minds and bodies (a boyfriend of mine from Paris once introduced me to his mother at a nude beach. While she was topless. We are no longer together…). I watched Renato and Albin have the same snippy fights that many straight couples have about beards that are too scratchy and suspicions of cheating. I also saw them through the lens of a 1970’s Hollywood producer, watching as a gay couple is served tea by a gay black housemaid in an apartment that they all share together. I pictured the producer’s head exploding like a cartoon.
La Cage aux Folles is classically French for more than just its liberal content: its humor is dry. We’re talking Sahara dry. A standout moment is when Renato, played by Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi, is talking with his son Laurent, played by Rémi Laurent. When Renato gawks at his son’s assertion that he is too flamboyant and must tone it down for the in-laws, Laurent gently swipes his father’s cheek. Without a word, he runs his fingers along the white wall, leaving a trail of makeup behind. Without a hint of emotion Renato replies, “I just had the walls sponge painted, Laurent.” In an attempt to make his son feel guilty, Renato only fuels the fire, and I cried with laughter.
Where Tognazzi inspires laughter through deadpan, Michel Serrault’s Albin is deliciously entertaining with every sashay and dose of side eye, no false eyelash out of place. When Renato and Laurent suggest that dinner with the in-laws will go smoother without the more flamboyant Albin present, he makes an event of his departure, taking only his favorite eyeshadow with him. Lucky for us he does return, and his solution to the whole problem is a hilariously cringeworthy spectacle of can’t-look-away proportions.
Throughout the film Molinaro uses color contrast between bright ice cream pastels and heavy browns to show us that Renato and Albin, who live in St. Tropez, are clearly more open than their closeminded counterparts from the big city. If his intention was for me to want Renato and Albin to be my parents, he succeeded (if he wanted me to start googling flights to sunny St. Tropez, that worked too). I enjoyed his subtler use of symbolism, particularly at the end of the film when he cleverly pairs Albin with Simon, the father of Laurent’s fiancé. He chooses this moment in particular to show us that while their adornments may be different, all parents share a desire for their children to find happiness.
La Cage aux Folles is an absurdly fun take on a relatable story; we all worry about bringing outsiders home to break bread with our quirky families, even if our fathers aren’t wearing lipstick. This story is so timeless that it was adapted by American filmmaker Mike Nichols into the 1996 film The Birdcage starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Truthfully, I saw The Birdcage years ago and was surprised that Nichols remained so true to Molinaro’s adaptation, down to the just-had-the-walls sponge painted scene. If that doesn’t say enough about the cross-cultural significance of La Cage aux Folles, it definitely speaks to my recommendation that you watch this entertaining adaptation.