A clever, kind-hearted comedy whose social significance might be lost on new viewers encountering the movie today, La cage aux folles was among the first widely seen movies to treat gay characters as normal people. In fact, straights who disapprove of homosexuality are portrayed as behind-the-times dinosaurs. Seeing as how the movie was released in 1978, this worldview might have represented wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers—or, if nothing else, the insular perspective of progressive Europeans—but it’s hard to argue with the uplifting energy of a humanistic picture about people who find happiness by staying true to themselves.
Based on Jean Poiret’s play and adapted for the screen by a team including Gallic comedy specialist Francis Veber, the French-Italian movie is set in St. Tropez. Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) runs a gay burlesque club called La Cage Aux Folles, whose star attraction is Renato’s longtime companion, Albin (Michel Serrault). Although Renato is a debonair impresario who only presents his homosexuality through flashy clothing and the occasional effeminate gesture, Albin is a full-on screaming queen. Not only does Albin perform in drag, but Albin is also a hysterical diva prone to temperamental meltdowns. Nonetheless, Renato and Albin are deeply in love, and they’ve done a wonderful job raising Renato’s son, Laurent (Rémi Laurent), whom Renato fathered with a female friend. When Laurent becomes engaged to the daughter of a conservative politician, the politician insists upon meeting his future son-in-law’s parents, so Renato agrees to “play it straight” for the duration of a dinner.
This being a sly farce, things don’t go according to plan, but even as gender-bending high jinks ensue, the movie never loses touch with its gentle message of tolerance and understanding. Serrault and Tognazzi are wonderful in every scene, balancing each other perfectly; Serrault’s girlish squeals play off Tognazzi’s slow-burn reactions. Playing the politician and his wife, Michel Galabru and Carmen Scarpitta paint with softer colors, though Galabru does a great job of keeping a one-note character from seeming monotonous. Adding an enjoyable dash of lunacy is Benny Luke as Jacob, Renato’s swishy butler—his scandalous maid’s costume is among the movie’s funniest sight gags. Like many ’70s comedies, La cage aux folles moves at a leisurely place while describing a slight story arc, but the finale is so emotionally satisfying that the gradual buildup feels appropriate.
La cage aux folles has enjoyed a long life in various media around the world. Two sequels followed, La cage aux folles II (1980) and La cage aux folles 3: ‘Elles’ se marient (1985); an American musical adaptation of Poiret’s original play, crafted by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman, opened on Broadway in 1983; a big-budget American remake of the 1978 film, titled The Birdcage, was released in 1996; and the Fierstein-Herman musical was successfully revived in 2004, and then again in 2010, with a world tour following in 2011.
La cage aux folles: GROOVY