LA CAGE AUX FOLLES – Blu-ray review

The main review below was written by John Puccio in regards to the 2001 DVD release of “La Cage Aux Folles” by MGM/UA. The rest of the review was written by Christopher Long and addresses the 2013 Blu-ray release by Criterion.

The Film According to John:

Yes, “La Cage aux Folles” is funny and poignant and charming and even a touch satirical, but I think what makes it all work so well is that its characters are both engaging and endearing. In this regard, the 1978 French farce has the unique advantage of appealing to a very broad audience, making it one of America’s biggest-grossing foreign imports of all time.

Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault star as a middle-aged gay couple, Renato and Albin, living in Saint-Tropez, the beach resort on the French Riviera. They are co-owners of a night spot called La Cage aux Folles that features female impersonators and transvestites, Renato managing the club and Albin starring in the revue as Zaza. They’ve been together for twenty years and bicker and fight and carry on as most couples will, Albin the more flamboyant and temperamental of the two, continually jealous and given to sudden and uncontrollable shrieks.

When the story begins Albin is convinced, as he is every day, that Renato doesn’t love him anymore. Renato plays an audio tape for Albin of the same tantrum he threw the night before. Perhaps in a bid for mainstream acceptance, the pair are never shown engaging in any type of physical intimacy, yet their looks, glances, and general demeanor toward one another show their mutual affection and devotion. It is a moving relationship played subtly yet vividly by two accomplished actors.

The major conflict in the movie occurs when we learn that Renato, in a drunken dalliance many years earlier, had an affair with a woman, the result being a son, Laurent (played, coincidentally, by an actor named Remi Laurent), whom the mother abandoned to be raised by Renato and Albin. Now, the son plans to get married to a young woman named Andrea (Luisa Maneri) and wants to introduce his fiancee’s parents to his own parents. The trouble is that her parents are uptight, puritanical prudes who would never countenance Renato and Albin’s lifestyle.

The girl’s father, M. Charrier (Michel Galabru), is the Secretary General of the country’s ruling party, the Union for Moral Order, and the mother, Madame Charrier (Carmen Scarpitta), is a frigid ice cube. To avoid conflict, the girl tells her parents that Laurent’s father is a cultural attaché. This comes in handy for them when the President of the Moral Order Party is found dead in the arms of an under-aged prostitute; a glitzy white wedding to a diplomat’s son will salvage the righteous M. Charrier’s now-sullied  professional reputation.

At Laurent’s request, Renato and Albin disguise themselves as the most “normal” couple possible in order to fool the young lady’s folks, and therein lies the bulk of the laughs. But thanks to the deft guidance of director Edouard Molinaro, neither character is subjected to ridicule, only gentle and empathetic humor. The funniest scenes occur when Renato tries to teach Albin to be more masculine to impress the girl’s mother and father. “Hold the toast in a manly way!” exclaims Renato, before showing Albin how to walk like John Wayne. This scene is doubly memorable if you recognize Tognazzi as one of Italy’s leading “tough guy” actors.

The plot is really quite simple and the finale hilarious, but it’s in the sincerity of the two primary characterizations that the movie succeeds.

The Film According to Christopher:

There’s little doubt that the extraordinary and unlikely commercial success of “La Cage Aux Folles” was due to its somewhat surprising conservatism. It argued eloquently that Renato and Albin shared the hopes and fears as heterosexual parents and showed them both willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of their child, a throwback to the era of the Hays Code approved maternal melodramas. And as in those films, the child comes off as very much the spoiled brat; I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to strangle Laurent for his shameful treatment of “Aunt” Albin. Still, playing it safe was quite the bold step in the ’70s and a major risk for some of the players. After shooting wrapped, Molinaro was convinced the movie was a failure that would all but end his career; 35 years later, it’s still the film he is best known for.

I was quite shocked to learn from the extras That Ugo Tognazzi was so disinterested in the role. According to Molinaro, Tognazzi sabotaged the film by refusing to speak French despite it being in his contract; the dialogue not only had to be dubbed by a French actor, but substantially re-written in the editing room to match the actor’s lip movements. The director also claims Tognazzi never took the role or the movie seriously.

How, then, to explain how remarkable his performance is? I’ve only seen Tognazzi in a few movies, but he has owned them even in supporting roles (he’s just amazing in “Don’t Touch The White Woman!”) and I can only hazard the most obvious guess: the man just had star charisma oozing out of every pore. He was cast in the film in place of Jean Poiret, who wrote and starred in the hit play that spawned this adaptation and several others, as a bid by the producers for commercial success. Perhaps it’s time to admit that sometimes producers really do know what they’re doing. Serrault is very good too, but Tognazzi, unengaged as he might have been, just knocks it out of the park and I can’t imagine “La Cage” being as big of a hit without him.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. My chicken-scratch viewing notes read “Shot on 16?” The image has a rough, grainy quality that looks a bit like a 16mm blowup, but, no, the transfer is indicated as being rendered from a 35 mm interpositive. I’m not quite sure why the film looks so thick and grainy (a somewhat gloomy lighting scheme, I imagine), but I believe it is true to the source material. Image detail is fairly strong though it never quite looks razor sharp. No damage or distortion is evident.

The linear PCM Mono audio track is a little flat, but always crisp and clear. Ennio Morricone did the score which is quite a departure from the spaghetti Westerns he is better known for, but a reminder that Morricone scored approximately a billion movies in just about every genre. The lossless audio preserves the music well even if it sounds a bit thin at times. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Criterion has included an eclectic variety of short features.

First up is an interview with director Eduardo Molinaro (2013, 18 min.) Molinaro was not exactly on the list of hallowed auteurs, cranking out steady genre fare (either detective films or comedies) before finding his way to “La Cage Aux Folles” which he acknowledges he agreed to shoot because he hoped it would be a hit in France (foreign box-office success seemed like a pipe dream at the time). He mentions difficulties with both actors, not just Tognazzi’s lack of interest, but also Serrault’s religious beliefs. Considering Serrault performed the role on stage for years, I’m not quite sure how accurate Molinaro is when he says the actor had issues with homosexuality; essentially he suggests that Serrault resisted a more multi-layered and sympathetic portrait in the film, being more comfortable portraying Albin solely as comic relief. Whatever the reality, Molinaro’s interview is rather frank and informative. Worth checking out.

Criterion has also included an interview (2013, 23 min.) with professor Laurence Senelick, author of “The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre.” Within the first minute, Senelick begins discussing shamanism, so I checked out quickly. Sorry.

The disc also includes some archival footage of Jean Poiret (the playwright-actor who created the original “La Cage Aux Folles”) and Michael Serrault, who formed a comedy duo long before “La Cage.” This section of the disc has two television comedy sketches by the duo (both from 1959 and running 11 min. and 6 min., respectively) as well as an excerpt from a Feb 1, 1973 television broadcast of the original theatrical production (10 min.)

We also get two Trailers, running a total of 4 minutes.

The slim 12-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic David Ehrenstein.

Film Value:
I’ve never seen “The Birdcage,” the 1996 American remake starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. The majority of critics who have seen both prefer the original, and I’m willing to guess that I would agree. It would have been nice if Criterion found a few more substantive extras. As it is, we’re left with the eloquently written essay by Mr. Ehrenstein as the only real analysis of the film, but the transfer is solid and the film is a pleasure that has certainly held up well over 35 years.