La Cage aux Folles Criterion Collection DVD Review: Classic French Farce Bliss

Eighteen years before the enjoyable-but-ultimately-uncalled-for remake, The Birdcage hit theater screens across the world, La Cage aux Folles first introduced moviegoers to the fantastic farce of an engagement between the offspring from two entirely different households as only the French could do it. In fact, they did it better. And there’s a reason for that: La Cage aux Folles is a bona fide French creation all the way around. Based on a 1973 stage play by Jean Poiret, La Cage aux Folles proved so popular, it inspired two sequels, an American musical stage version, and the aforementioned remake.

Here, we take a look at the original motion picture, which – naturally – happens to be the quintessential one. The story centers on a middle-aged gay couple in Saint-Tropez who run a drag nightclub called La Cage aux Folles, Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) and Albin (Michel Surrault). Albin is the star of the show, while Renato handles the business end of things, all the while putting up with his partner’s prima donna antics – which, at the beginning of the film, are already pretty heated. Things get even hotter once Renato’s biological son, Laurent (Rémi Laurent) – whom the couple raised as their own after his mother, the only woman Renato ever slept with, decided it wasn’t her bag – shows up with big news: he’s engaged.

Not only that, but Laurent is engaged to one Andréa Charrier (Luisa Maneri), a young lass from an ultraconservative family whose patriarch, Simon (Michel Galabru, who is about the only star of the cast still living as of this writing) has just been informed that the president of his own Moral Order movement passed away the night before in the arms of an underage black prostitute. So, needless to say, Laurent’s future father-in-law is a bit tense – but nowhere near as tense as he would be were he to learn his daughter is engaged to a man raised by a couple of aging homosexuals, so it’s a good thing for him when his daughter lies to both he and her mother (Carmen Scarpitta) and tells him Laurent’s father is an ambassador and his mother a housewife!

But with the unfortunate news of Mr. Charrier’s supposedly moralistic president’s passing, Mrs. Charrier suggests a grand white wedding for the young lovers – which, of course, means going to Saint-Tropez for the weekend in order to meet the future in-laws – whose flat lies directly above the well-known La Cage aux Folles nightclub. Hoping to live up to the lies his beloved relayed to her folks, Laurent asks his father to act straight once the Charriers arrive – something that is difficult enough in itself for a man who has taken a lifetime to realize who he is, but which becomes even harder when Renato asks the overly-flamboyant and completely outrageous Albin to leave for the weekend (big mistake). Add in the plight of Mr. Charrier’s pursuing paparazzi and one the most memorable endings ever committed to film, and you have a case of genuine classic French farce bliss on your hands.

The Criterion Collection adds this classic to its library with a transfer taken directly from a 35mm interpositive which was littered with dirt and debris of almost every kind. Cleaned up to the max, this new print is quite the improvement over the old non-anamorphic MGM DVD from 2001. The only drawback here in my opinion (and this will mostly be limited to my own opinion, mind you) is that Criterion’s new DVD only contains a mono French audio track (with newly translated English subtitles), whereas the old 2001 disc also featured the original English dubbed track as well as optional French and Spanish subtitles.

But, of course, that old MGM disc only had an American theatrical trailer to keep us Folles-philes at bay. This new Criterion issue, on the other hand, has several new special features, which begin with an interview with director Edouard Molinaro – who, as it turns out, hated making these movies. Next up are the talents of Michel Surrault and his comedic partner Jean Poiret live and on fire in three archival segments taken from the vaults of French TV (one item in particular is a look at the original La Cage aux Folles in play form, filmed for live TV), which is followed by an interview with The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre author Laurence Senelick, and American and French trailers. The release concludes with a booklet containing notes by critic David Ehrenstein.

Highly recommended.

Luigi Bastardo

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