1978, 96 minutes
Review by Joshua Handler
This past Tuesday, The Criterion Collection released Edouard Molinaro's classic comedy La Cage Aux Folles on Blu-ray and DVD. The film was remade into the 1996 Mike Nichols-directed hit, The Birdcage, and while The Birdcage is good in its own right, La Cage Aux Folles will forever be the better film for many reasons, and Criterion's Blu-ray makes it look better than ever.
La Cage Aux Folles was a massive international success when released and was nominated for three Oscars including Best Director and Adapted Screenplay. It was, as writer Laurence Senelick says in an interview on the disc, a groundbreaking film because it showed homosexuals as people who had families and relationships like any other heterosexual couple. Without La Cage to pave the way, a film like Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right would never have been made.
The film tells the story of a man, Renato Baldi (Ugo Tognazzi), who lives with his partner, Albin (Michel Serrault), a drag queen who performs in the nightclub that they run. The two are forced to play it straight, though, when Renato's son announces that he is engaged and that his conservative future in-laws will be coming over for dinner.
La Cage Aux Folles gets so much right, but what distinguishes it most from The Birdcage is the humanity put into the characters. The Birdcage is a very funny film, but not much more. The characters are caricatures and, while likable, don't have much humanity to them. Albin is the more feminine and outrageous person in his and Renato's relationship and could easily fall into caricature, but Moliaro is far too smart to allow Albin to simply be outrageous. In a wonderful new interview with Molinaro on the disc, Molinaro says that Michel Sarrault was very conservative and thought of playing Albin like playing a clown while on stage. Molinaro told Sarrault that he wanted to have Albin be more realistic. It worked, as Albin is in-your-face, but is still a real person. Take the scene where Albin comes out dressed as a man for the first time. Sarrault shows the shame and hurt that Albin feels. He is so hurt because he feels as if he is being forced to being someone he's not. This a scene that shows another dimension of Albin and humanizes him and asks us to connect on a human level with him.
As Renato, Ugo Tognazzi turns in an equally impressive performance. While definitely effeminate, Tognazzi plays Renato with a bit of machismo that adds to his charm. But, most importantly of all, he shows real heart. In one scene, Albin leaves and is sitting at the train station. Renato catches up to him to try to get him back. After telling Albin that he's hard to live with, Renato tells him that he's still with him because he makes him laugh. This moment must be viewed in the film for maximum impact, but this is a moment that cuts to the core of Albin and Renato's relationship that is also perfectly played by Tognazzi. His slick façade has faded away and his humanity emerges.
In the interview with Molinaro on the disc, he says that Tognazzi did not want to do the film. He refused to speak in French and say his lines. Instead, he spoke in Italian, which made the writers rewrite much of the dialogue to match his mouth movements. They subsequently dubbed him (an excellent dubbing job I might add).
Molinaro makes sure that each shot exists for maximum emotional and comedic effect, which makes this a masterful blend of comedic farce and power. The film threatens to turn into a ridiculous farce at many turns, but Molinaro manages to pull back and allow for the humanity to seep through to keep the film in check and the audience engaged in the characters, not just the comedy of the situation.
Oddly enough, Molinaro said in the interview on the disc that he didn't want to make this film. He had just directed a comedy that disappointed and made La Cage Aux Folles for the money. When Molinaro first saw La Cage, he thought he had made a bad film and was ashamed. However, the film ended up being a massive international success and garnered him two Oscar nominations.
Criterion's release of this film looks absolutely fantastic. The last time I saw La Cage Aux Folles was years ago on a dubbed VHS. Seeing this new restoration was like watching a different movie. The supplements include a fascinating interview with Molinaro, an interview with Laurence Senelick, author of The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre, theatrical trailers, and footage of Michel Sarrault and Jean Poiret, writer and star of the original production of La Cage Aux Folles. The footage of Sarrault and Poiret performing La Cage Aux Folles on stage is very interesting, as it is interesting to compare the show's tone to that of the film. Additionally, there is a booklet inside the case which contains a piece by writer David Ehrenstein. While the special features are somewhat lacking, this is a must-own for fans of La Cage Aux Folles. This edition is another triumph for Criterion.
Blu-ray quality: 4/4
Blu-ray quality: 4/4