Those who remember fondly Francis Veber’s The Dinner Game from the summer before last may be a bit disappointed in Le Placard (The Closet)—which has a lot of the earlier film’s comic invention but also, to those of us who are accustomed to Hollywood-style propaganda, enough of an ideological edge to give it an unbalancing earnestness. Yet what seems on its surface to be yet another manifesto by the entertainment industry on behalf of what conservatives coyly call “the gay lifestyle” actually has a more serious purpose. Why among so many of those who are not gay themselves is it “cool”— that is to say fashionable, charming, interesting, fascinating, good— to be gay? The film does not gloss over the persecution to which homosexuals have been and still are subjected to, but its fascination with this legitimate question shows that it is already an advance on anything we could expect from an American film.
That François “Pigno” Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) is a pathetic figure is established from the start as he is cut out of his company’s photograph and no one notices or cares. “I feel bad for the guy in the red tie,” says the photographer.
“Don’t,” says one of Pigno’s co-workers. “He’s being fired.”
“No, he’s a jerk” [the French word is actually untranslatable for a family audience].
Pigno, the only one who is unaware of his impending fate, overhears this exchange in the men’s room and it proves the final straw to his load of troubles. His ex-wife, Christine (Alexandra Vandernoot), with whom he is still in love, doesn’t return his calls and is dunning him for money; his only son, Franck (Stanislas Crevillén), treats him with contempt and he appears to have no friends. As he is about to end it all by jumping from the balcony of his modest apartment, however, a new neighbor, Belone (Michel Aumont), persuades him not to on the grounds that he will land on his, Belone’s, car which it will then cost him a lot to repair. This is a nice touch as it both reinforces our sense of Pigno’s niceness, which invites everyone to walk all over him, and the neighbor’s shrewdness in judging him at sight, since he doesn’t really own a car but knew exactly the way to prevent his suicide.
As the two men talk, Belone hatches a plot to keep Pigno’s job. Anonymously, he will send a doctored photo to his boss which appears to show Pigno in revealing leatherwear at a gay bar. If his “outing” appears to be done maliciously, it will be believed, and the company, which makes condoms, will not dare fire him for fear of rousing the anger of gay activists. Belone claims a certain moral standing as the author of such a prank because he himself was dismissed from his job, back in the bad old days, for being homosexual. Pigno is doubtful, thinking that no one will believe he is really gay, but the plan works better than he could have hoped. He not only keeps his job but he becomes the talk of the plant and earns the respect of those who formerly despised him. Even his superior in the accountancy department, the beautiful Mademoiselle Bertrand (Michèle Laroque), takes a new interest in a man whom she would never have wanted before but who has now been proclaimed out of her reach. Both his ex-wife and his son are similarly fascinated and begin to want him back in their lives.
All this is predictable enough, if no less funny as the skilled M. Veber presents it to us. The comedy of Pigno’s inevitable but shocking outing of himself as a heterosexual is also very nicely done. But the really interesting thing about the movie is a sub-plot involving another scheme spun off the first. The company prankster, Guillaume (Thierry Lhermitte), persuades a colleague, the tough, rugby-playing Santini (Gérard Depardieu) that his job is in danger because of “homophobic” remarks he has made about the allegedly gay Pigno. The only way to save it, he believes, is to befriend the weedy little accountant—to wine him and dine him and give him presents. Professing his disgust, Santini does so, but then a strange thing happens. The unaccustomed necessity of showing affection to a fellow human being (we observe the cold indifference with which he treats his wife) awakens real feeling in him and he believes himself to be in love with Pigno. When the latter naturally rebuffs his attentions, he has a nervous breakdown.
The trouble with this remarkably subtle development is that it plays too easily to the stereotype of the macho-man who is “really” a latent homosexual, “repressing” his true nature with a pose of exaggerated masculinity. Veber makes it too easy for his audience to suppose that they understand Santini. Perhaps he himself understands him in the same way. Yet in that childlike belief in a Freudian-style psychic “reality” lies the answer to the otherwise unanswered question of why it is cool to be queer. For the same reason that everyone is willing to believe Pigno a homosexual—that is, because his exposure as one is assumed to be malicious—we are willing to believe that homosexuals are in touch with a “reality” that eludes the rest of us. For who would choose to be one? That’s why the absence of choice is the cornerstone of the new gay credo of “sexual orientation”—as opposed to “sexual preference.” Here, at least, is true psychic reality, however difficult such a thing is to get at for the rest of us. Veber subtly mocks this belief— without quite having the courage of his convictions.