The Closet (Le Placard)
directed by Francis Veber
(Miramax, 2001)

Some comedies surprise you with sight gags. Others snag you with snappy patter. Still others -- very few these days -- simply let their situations evolve, expand and feed off themselves until the complications leave you in stitches.

Almost none attempt all three, and few succeed. The Closet is that rare exception.

The premise of The Closet is at least as old as Tootsie, that venerable Dustin Hoffman vehicle in which an actor lands a coveted part in a soap opera by dressing up as a woman.

Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteil) never dresses up as a woman or applies for a job he's just not built for. Instead, to use his own words, he comes "out of a closet he never went into." Faced with being downsized from the company he's served loyally for 20 years, Pignon -- a meek accountant who bores even his best friends and co-workers -- reluctantly goes along with a plan designed to make his company director (Jean Rochefort) think he's gay.

That would make firing Pignon a problem, because he works for a rubber company whose chief product is condoms. And the boss figures if it gets out that he's laid off a gay man, he'll have every gay rights group in France marching on his factory.

But writer-director Francis Veber doesn't content himself with a good concept. From the moment the theme manifests itself, the variations run rampant.

It begins with the plant's personnel director, Felix Santini (Gerard Depardieu), a gay-bashing rugby fanatic who's all ready to extract a pound of flesh from Pignon's palpitating heart -- until his teammates tell him his anti-gay gags have put him next in line to be fired. It picks up speed when Pignon's supervisor (Michele Laroque) smells a scam and tries to expose Pignon -- literally. Her efforts almost lead to her own firing: for sexual harassment.

Then things quickly go from mad to worse when the director decides Pignon should be the centerpiece of the plant's float in Paris' gay pride parade -- sitting under a giant phallus and sporting a rubber condom cap and a sweatshirt that says "Come out safely." You can imagine the conclusions Pignon's ex-wife (Alexandra Vandernoot) and 17-year-old son (Stanlislas Crevillen) leap to when they see him in the parade -- or you think you can, until the moment arrives.

Not everything in The Closet works quite as well as Pignon's rubber cap, however. The film opens and ends with parallel set pieces in which Pignon and his co-workers are lining up in front of the plant to have the company photo taken. In the first scene, Pignon gets crowded out of the frame. If you don't see what's going to happen in the last, you must have been watching another movie.

There's also a thematic parallel involving a gray kitten or two that probably should have been left on the cutting room floor.

But on the whole, The Closet is a formidable piece of work, a deft combination of screwball comedy and message film that captures the rolling confusion of an age that's trying -- with varying results -- to come to grips with a serious and mind-boggling issue.

For his efforts, Auteil won the Golden Goblet for best actor at the Shanghai International Film Festival. Give him 84 minutes and he'll win you over, too.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 24 August 2002

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