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The nerdcage
Francis Veber brings condom conversion to French comedy

BY PETER KEOUGH



Still in the closet

Francis Veber is looking for the way out. He makes brisk little comedies, under 90 minutes, with sharp dialogue, clever slapstick, pointed social commentary, and exquisite performances — and on tight budgets. So why isn’t this guy making a fortune in Hollywood? One problem is, he’s French. Although he’s lived part-time in Hollywood for some years and has been turning out hits in France since Le jouet (The Toy; 1969), something hasn’t translated into box-office dollars and cents.

It’s not for lack of trying. Who could forget Richard Pryor in the American remake of The Toy (1982), or Veber’s own English remake of his Three Fugitives (1989), or Buddy Buddy (1981), the Hollywood version of his A Pain in the A . . . (1973) directed by no less than Veber’s idol Billy Wilder? Well, Veber would like to. Only his La cage aux folles (1978) and its remake The Birdcage (1996) have earned him the accolades over here that he’s used to in France.

He’s hoping that might change with The Closet. Like La cage aux folles, it’s a comedy about sexual stereotypes and social perceptions. Daniel Auteuil is a meek accountant about to get canned from his job at a condom factory when his neighbor has a brainstorm. If he starts a rumor that he’s gay, his employers won’t dare dump him. Very arch and up-to-date, but where are the fart jokes?

Veber admits he’s at a loss when it comes to the new gross-out ¾sthetics of American comedies. ÒI had so much pleasure watching Lubitsch and Capra, Sturges, people like that. Now it doesn’t seem to be the same touch. Someone told me that before, writers were coming from Broadway, and now they are coming from TV; they are looking for punch lines instead of looking for structure. Also, the teenage audience is so big here and you have comedies like Something About Mary. It’s fine, and I haven’t seen Scary Movie, but they love it, too. But I won’t be able to write that kind of thing. The penis in the fly or sperm in Cameron Diaz’s hair, you know? I can’t write that.Ó

And Hollywood seems at a loss when it comes to Veber. Take his current attempt to remake his last big French hit, Le d”ner des cons, which was released here to little notice as The Dinner Game (1997). A wealthy publisher invites strangers to his dinner parties; what the guest doesn’t know is that he or she is an ÒidiotÓ brought in to entertain the rest. Trouble started with DreamWorks’ proposed title, Dinner for Schmucks. ÒIt’s difficult to remake. I’ve discovered through the process how much the comedy has strong cultural roots. There are things here that are very different than in Europe. They asked Milos Forman what was the difference between the Czechoslovakian Forman and the American Forman, and he said, when I was in Czechoslovakia I could write, and now I need the help of an American writer because I arrived too late to pick up the sensibility of the country. I understand that. I arrived too late to become an American. Billy Wilder was helped by [Charles] Brackett; he had great writers with him that were American.Ó

Of course, some aspects of comedy are universal. With his modest but brilliant comedies and his knack for casting big stars (in addition to Auteuil, The Closet features French topliners GŽrard Depardieu and Thierry Lhermitte), Veber can be compared to Woody Allen. Who, it turns out, is one of Veber’s biggest fans. ÒI was in Los Angeles and he was showing Sweet and Lowdown. I said how much I liked what he was doing and told him that I was the writer/director of The Dinner Game.’ He said, ‘I was your biggest publicist in New York.’ Then he paid me a magnificent compliment when I arrived back in Los Angeles a couple of months ago. I had a fax from my producer that said Woody Allen wants to be the idiot in The Dinner Game, in the remake, and what do you think of that?

ÒI was so enthusiastic that I called DreamWorks, who were producing the film at the time, and they said they were not interested. Because he doesn’t have much box-office clout. And it’s sad because he’s such a genius. But box office is the key word here.Ó

— PK

For Francis Veber, perennial director of France’s funniest comedies, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp has evolved into François Pignon. That’s the name of the hangdog hero of nearly every one of his low-key, inimitable (Hollywood has been trying to copy them for ages) farces. In his 1997 film The Dinner Party (Le dîner de cons), Pignon is played by the koala-like Jacques Villeret. A hapless nerd who builds models of engineering milestones out of matchsticks, he’s invited to a party of snobs to entertain them with his idiocy, but he sweetly turns the tables.

This is kind of what Veber is doing in film after film — he invites us sadists to laugh at poor Pignon, then reveals that he’s just like us, only better. Pignon is Woody Allen without the wit, the neuroses, or the cultural pretensions. Instead, he has decency, unwitting righteousness, and the long arm of poetic justice on his side.

In The Closet, Pignon is played by Gallic everyman Daniel Auteuil. Last seen in this country in the sublime The Widow of Saint-Pierre, in which he played a tragic hero with austere resignation, Auteuil here plays the comic hero Pignon with austere non-comprehension. A hardworking nondescript accountant in a condom factory, Pignon finds himself squeezed out of the company photo before the film’s credits are even completed. It doesn’t matter, he learns from an overheard conversation in the men’s room, since he’s about to be laid off anyway. What with his wife having left him because he was so boring and his teenage son avoiding him for the same reason, Pignon has little to live for.

Enter the little kitty. Yes, this filmmaker does not shrink from using a cute feline as a plot device, or a cute old man. The latter is Pignon’s new next-door neighbor, Belone (Michel Aumont), who uses the stray cat as a ploy to get into Pignon’s apartment and talk him out of suicide. Belone has a helpful suggestion: why doesn’t Pignon start a rumor that he’s gay? Then his bosses — this is a condom factory, after all — wouldn’t want to incur bad publicity by firing him.

Not only do the rumors save Pignon’s job, they somehow make him more . . . interesting. The genius of Belone’s plan is his insistence that Pignon change absolutely nothing about his appearance or behavior: people’s expectations and prejudices will do the rest. From the titillating gossip exchanged by the two women who work with him in the accounting office to the quandaries of Félix (Gérard Depardieu in a comic tour de force), a homophobic jock now fearing for his job, to the renewed attentions of his estranged wife and son, Pignon’s whole world is upended for the better through the agency of an “anonymously” sent doctored photo. And in the comic aftermath of this lucid chaos (Veber’s direction is so crisp you hardly notice the eloquence of the visuals, the employment of space and setting with the ingenuity of Jacques Tati), the film quietly makes its shrewd points about issues ranging from sexual identity to sexual harassment. It’s a minor breakthrough in the cause of tolerance along the lines of Veber’s La cage aux folles.

All of which could — and at rare moments of weakness in The Closet does — trespass into formulaic platitude. The comedy of reversed expectations, as Veber knows well, works best when its own expectations are reversed, or at least fulfilled in surprising ways. Just as the satire of social stereotypes, of the invidious habit people have of judging by appearances, imparts a special sting when the audience’s proclivity in that direction gets tweaked as well.

Thus Veber arranges for Félix, the film’s least sympathetic character, to be transformed through a cruel ploy conceived by fellow worker Guillaume (Thierry Lhermitte, the arch snob from The Dinner Game), and through the intercession of a pink sweater, into the film’s most touching object of pathos, into a virtual Pignon himself. Less successful is the transformation of Mlle. Bertrand (Michèle Laroque), who goes from suspicious indifference to a display of affection that becomes a big endorsement of the company’s product to a passing tour of Japanese investors. Veber’s comedies remain all-boy affairs; if he really wants to get out of the closet, he needs to realize that Pignon can be a woman, too.

Issue Date: July 5-12, 2001