Sunday, August 6, 2017

Gay times

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2001)

In Francis Veber’s The Closet, Daniel Auteuil plays a rather mediocre accountant who overhears that he’s going to be fired. This happens in a washroom stall of course; in movies, the washroom stall regularly yields up secrets that in real life couldn’t be cracked by the FBI. So that evening he nearly kills himself by jumping off the balcony. Most of us would probably view this as an over-reaction (he could at least have waited until it was official) but we’d be forgetting that thwarted suicide is a time-honored device for kicking off a comedy set-up. He’s saved by his new neighbor, who gets him talking, and the next morning presents him a grand scheme to stall the firing. If a company fired an employee right after finding out he was gay, it would be obvious discrimination. So Auteuil has to come out of a closet that he was never in!

Lost in translation

If you think this is a witty and imaginative premise, then the movie will probably work just fine for you. The audience I saw it with (which, for whatever reason, contained a higher than average quota of elderly ladies) seemed highly predisposed to enjoy it. Several people laughed themselves silly, in the opening minutes, at the following unremarkable exchange: “Poor guy”/”He’s an idiot.” Maybe they were Francophones, responding to something that the subtitles lost in translation. There was even a fair-sized smattering of applause at the end, which is unusual nowadays.

But as Letterman sometimes says about some of his routines, The Closet only has the appearance of comedy rather than being the actual thing. It’s only eighty minutes long, and moves along pretty quickly, as an actual comedy would. As well as the stuff I mentioned already, it has twists and turns, fights, misunderstandings, an over the top nervous breakdown, and a guy wearing a condom-shaped hat. Sounds like comedy to me so far. But Veber is up to his usual trick (last exhibited in the equally awful, but also much-loved The Dinner Game) – he makes a movie so anachronistic and musty that it ends up seeming as if he’s mining some kind of wonderful classicism. The film opens with the kind of jaunty sitcom music you never get in a movie any more, and its title pops up on screen in big red lettering of the kind that was used to advertise Carry on Doctor. The cinematography of Veber’s films doesn’t exactly fall into the “painting with light” category – everything’s bright and plain and to the point. No shadows to be seen, literally or figuratively.


Veber’s plots often spring from unlikely schemes or ploys that push one or more of the characters into excess. In The Closet, Gerard Depardieu (his every scene suffused with the sense of physical and artistic bloat) plays the factory’s homophobic personnel manager. Some colleagues convince him that in the company’s new gay-friendly environment, he may lose his own job if he doesn’t tone it down and reach out to Auteuil. Depardieu is funny for a while, but then the character’s supposed to get confused about what his real feelings are, and everything goes adrift (he ended up reminding me of Herbert Lom’s Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies).

The theme of The Closet, such as it is, is that by introducing some sexual ambiguity into the way he’s perceived, Auteuil gains greater confidence and control over his own life, and rubs off a positive influence on most people around him. A co-worker who’s ignored him for five years suddenly finds him attractive; his disinterested son starts dropping in for dinner. But the film is a stacked deck. In a company employing close to a hundred people, would the revelation of one homosexual really be such a galvanizing topic? Not in downtown Toronto for sure. The Toronto audience seems to go along with it anyway, on the basis I suppose that the film’s not about us but about someone else (maybe it’s set in the same France that the Coneheads come from).

Veber only ever works in France, but he reportedly prefers living in Los Angeles, rendering his films somewhat foreign (and therefore subject to being allowed some slack) no matter where you’re from. Even the title sums up the fuzziness. The Closet is a perfectly generic, easily digestible, title for a comedy with a gay premise. But since the movie is specifically not about being in, or having been in, a closet, it seems a lazy choice.

If only Veber had slowed down occasionally and traded in a little efficiency for the sake of individuality. This year’s films have been severely short of interesting characters. But at least a couple of them turn up in another current movie, Crazy/Beautiful. Kirsten Dunst plays a rich girl who’s into drink and drugs and heading nowhere fast. She hooks up with a diligent, hard-working kid from an immigrant family (Jay Fernandez), and starts to pull him off track.


If The Closet occupies a nowhere land of its own, Crazy/Beautiful is at least recognizably contemporary. It’s a rather compromised version of that though – reportedly due to commercial pressures on the director John Stockwell (it certainly looks that way in the finished film). Dunst seems game for just about anything, and in some of her high-octane freewheeling life force moments is just about as naturalistic as any actor ever gets. But the film is restrained on the details of her condition (we don’t see any drugs or sex), and has rather too many easily digestible montages of frolic and fun, and too much of its lush California setting in general. The ending is soft, although maybe all I mean by this is that it’s a happy ending. Basically, for all its qualities, Crazy/Beautiful ends up seeming mainly like a movie for teenagers.

But it has some genuine pain tucked in there. Dunst’s father, played by Bruce Davison (who suggests a more complex back story and inner calculation than the film can accommodate), advises Fernandez to stay away from her for its own good, essentially writing her off to oblivion. Davison’s character is a former radical, now a Congressman, still apparently in touch with his idealism, which makes this personal betrayal all the sadder, and Dunst’s reaction when she finds out is as lacerating as it should be. Sometimes at least, the movie manages not to pull its punches. Even if you’re not a teenager, it’s a much better use of time than The Closet. Even if you’re gay. Even if you’re just pretending to be.

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