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Coming Out With Laughs

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2001

   


    'The Closet' Daniel Auteuil and Michele Laroque in "The Closet." (Miramax Zoe)
Whatever you feel about French film comedies, the undisputed master of the form is Francis Veber, whose new comedy, "The Closet," wins you over with its devastating simplicity.

In the movie, a wonderfully hangdog Daniel Auteuil plays Francois Pignon, an accountant at a condom factory whose greatest problem is his extreme dullness.

He's so boring and disposable that Pignon's colleagues practically yawn in his presence. And when there's one person too many to fit within the camera viewfinder for the annual company portait, he's asked to sit out.

Pignon has even bored his wife to the point of legal separation. And his teenage son, living with his mother, does anything he can to avoid visiting Dad.

So when Pignon's boss decides to fire him, Francois goes into a deep depression. That is, until he's saved by Belone (Michel Aumont), a good-hearted neighbor and retired corporate psychologist who advises the hapless employee to claim that he's homosexual. That way, Belone says, the company will be too afraid of a lawsuit to get rid of him.

Pignon goes for it. Belone anonymously mails in doctored photographs of Pignon in compromising attire. Instantly, Pignon's job is safe. And just as instantly, he's an in-house celebrity. The entire firm walks on eggshells. Which puts the heat on Felix Santini (Gerard Depardieu), a heavyset good ol' boy, who runs the company rugby team and who's never at a loss for gay-bashing language. Suddenly Santini's faced with termination if he doesn't get with the program.

Auteuil, a great actor, gives what could be a one-dimensional role an added dimension of poignancy. He really lives and breathes the part, without flamboyant histrionics – all of which makes the comedy around him even more amusing. It's the office's heightened percetion, as his colleagues examine Pignon's taciturn face for "gay signs," that makes things funny. Thus, the smallest gesture acquires huge meaning. Auteuil makes deft use of this comedic tension.

While Auteuil underplays, Depardieu counterpoints with an almost ursine, over-the-top portrayal. The performances work very well together: the faceless employee who has become the center of attention and the bearish homophobe trying his best to be sensitive. A very funny combination.

Writer-director Veber, who wrote and directed "The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe," "La cage aux folles" and "The Dinner Game," may not have found the most original premise. But it feels original, thanks to the assured, well-sustained comedic tone.

The Boris Becker of Gallic silliness, Veber serves the same scorching projectiles that hit exactly the same spots. But if those serves are predictable, they're also dead-on. You can hate him for his cheesiness – call it le fromage factor – but it's hard to return serve without at least a smirk. Heck, you might even laugh out loud. This is Veber's game and, almost by definition, nobody does it better.

"The Closet (Le Placard)" (R, 85 minutes)Contains sexual scenes and language. In French with subtitles at the Loews Cineplex Dupont Circle.

 

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