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Straight to the Funny Bone

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2001


    'The Closet' Daniel Auteuil and Michele Laroque in "The Closet." (Miramax Zoe)
"The Closet," a tour de farce from France's funniest filmmaker, Francis Veber, is yet another reminder of how coarse and mindless most homegrown comedies have become in recent years. While Veber and his compatriots pooh-pooh social conventions, their American counterparts poo-poo on social conventions.

Veber, whose vast body of work includes "The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe," "La Cage aux Folles" and sundry other films, has adapted many of his classics for the U.S. market. The French originals are always much breezier, the characters more genuine and the actors subtler even if the situations are just as silly.

"The Closet's" hapless hero, Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil), lands in all sorts of sidesplitting sequences. In one case he is obliged to put a giant condom on his head and ride a float in a gay pride parade. Pignon, who is straight, is caught in this ridiculous plight because he's pretended to be homosexual so he won't be fired.

Auteuil plays the moment as if frozen in humiliation – a tactic Jack Benny might have chosen. But if Jim Carrey were in the same scene, he'd pull the condom over his head and pretend to be a penis. One of France's foremost talents, Auteuil is an actor playing a character; Carrey is a character playing himself.

"The Closet" sends up corporate culture and its laughable efforts to comply with politically correct practices, but it also fools around with the influence of perception. Though the "outed" Pignon remains the same quiet man he has been all his life, he's suddenly seen as exotic. Suddenly, he's no longer dull. He was straight; now he's just pretending to be straight. That is fascinating. As for Pignon, he has never felt so alive.

A beautiful female colleague tries to change his orientation; closeted colleagues give him the eye; and even the firm's homophobic director of personnel, Felix (the hilarious Gerard Depardieu), toadies up to Pignon for fear of losing his job. In one of the movie's sweet twists, Felix discovers that he's not just a big bully, but a lonely guy underneath all that bluster. And the two become fast friends. Veber plays with the same topic here as he did in 1978's "La Cage aux Folles," in which a couple of aging queens try to play it straight. Twenty-three years later, straights are trying to pass for gay. That's progress? Who can say.

"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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