Le placard (The closet)

In the new French comedy “Le Placard,” Daniel Auteuil plays Francois Pignon, an accountant who feels invisible. Francois tells his new friend Pierre about his recurring nightmare, being so insignificant at his birth that the doctor tells his mother to keep pushing even though he’s already out and about. Not much has changed since then.

closetRecently divorced, Francois finds himself being avoided by his ex-wife and teenage son, who find him as interesting as an infomercial. Things aren’t much better at work. In the bathroom at work, Francois overhears his superiors discussing his termination, totally oblivious to the fact that he is in the stall.

Even though Francois a hard worker, a decent man and a good father, you really can’t blame the people in his life for avoiding him. He’s a shell of a man, a dullard who has resigned himself to such. He works only to support his ex-wife’s alimony. When he learns that he’s being fired, Francois decides the best thing to do is jump off the balcony of his apartment building.

That would be the easy way out. Writer-director Francis Veber (“The Dinner Game”) has something more audacious in mind. Thanks to the advice of his new friend, Francois pretends to be gay, forcing his company to rethink their dismissal.

How would it look? A rubber manufacturing company, whose chief product is condoms, firing their only homosexual employee. The press, the protests, the possibility of offending their core market.

So Francois comes out of “The Closet” in Veber’s effervescent comedy about political correctness and perception. Veber, one of France’s most insightful comedy writers and directors, has been down this road before. His script for “La Cage Aux Folles” showed us the comical side of gay men passing as straight.

In “The Closet,” Veber reverses the process. He shows us a straight man who pretends to be gay, and the results are equally gratifying. Unlike “La Cage Aux Folles,” which was burlesque to the point of being farce, “Le Placard” is really a drama that finds humor in the things that people say and do. The humor is character driven, not a series of easy jokes. Veber has something much more serious on his mind, which makes “Le Placard” as smart as it is funny.

Before Francois can leap from the balcony, he’s interrupted by new neighbor Pierre (the wonderful Michel Aumont), who advises him not to jump. Not because he really cares, but because Pierre’s car is below Francois’s balcony. Actually Pierre does care, and uses the wisecrack to get Francois to come to his senses.

An aging homosexual who was fired for his sexual preference, Pierre encourages Francois to pretend that he’s gay. To ensure that his superiors know, Pierre alters some suggestive photos to include Francois and mails them to his company. Once the cat is out of the bag, Francois not only finds himself rehired, but actually revered.

The beauty of Veber’s script is that it deals with people’s perceptions, not Francois’s deception. Except admitting that he’s gay, Francois changes nothing about himself. He talks, walks, dresses and eats the same. What changes are the way his coworkers and friends see him. All of a sudden he becomes interesting. His ex-wife wants to see him again. He gets respect from his son. His boss sees him as an asset.

There’s a lot of laughs in all of this, but “Le Placard” also displays a lot of heart. None of this would work if the characters were caricatures. Veber and his cast create living, breathing people that we can invest in and care about.

Auteuil, so powerful in the recent “The Widow of Saint-Pierre,” is extremely earnest as Francois, who becomes a better man by pretending to be gay. Auteuil makes Francois’s journey fulfilling. There’s real growth in his character, but it’s the subtle changes that help us appreciate Auteuil’s talents as an actor.

Gerard Depardieu is simply great as Felix Santini, the company’s resident homophobe and coach of their rugby team. Depardieu is hilariously sympathetic as a man who realizes that he is a dinosaur, and after being tricked by coworkers to cozy up to Francois in order to save his own job, begins to find himself. Depardieu’s transformation is filled with funny observations and insecurity, all perfectly realized by the actor.

As the instigator of the charade, Aumont shows us why he is one of France’s most respected actors. Pierre is wise and wonderful, and Aumont displays those characteristics with ease. We not only like Pierre, we come to appreciate his place in Francois’ universe.

Unlike most of Veber’s comedies, “Le Placard” is very understated. Nothing is larger than life here, something you couldn’t say for “The Dinner Game” and “Father’s Day.” Veber’s script is delicious, filled with sparkling dialogue and honest observation. He makes a statement, but never at the expense of entertainment.

French films are always a tough sell, but “Le Placard” is so universal in its message and presentation that I believe most audiences will appreciate the effort.


French comedy turns man into closet case


Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu, Thierry Lhermitte, Michele Laroque, Michel Aumont. Directed by Francis Veber. Rated R. 85 Minutes.


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