Versions of the idea are as old as farce itself. Shakespeare did it. So did Shakespeare in Love. Mistaken identity and the comic confusion that ensues. Blake Edwards did it double cadonia in Victor Victoria when Julie Andrews played a drag queen: a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Now in The Closet, French writer-director Francis Veber follows in reverse suit with a straight man pretending to be a gay man pretending to be a straight man.
The Closet is the story of Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil), a middle-management accountant whose outstanding characteristic is his blandness. Pignon is the kind of mild-mannered man who daily offers to fetch coffee for his co-workers and daily meets with contempt for his tame generosity of spirit. In short, because he tries to stay within himself, determines to maintain an even emotional keel, resolves to keep private things private, Pignon is an easy man to disdain. He worshiped the woman to whom he was married, but she sneers at his devotion. He dotes on his teenage son, but the boy won't even return his father's phone messages. And then the bosses at Pignon's firm decide he's expendable, mostly, it seems, because they presume he won't put up a fuss when handed his pink slip.
But Pignon is not the strand of boiled spaghetti everybody deems him. And he readily embraces a scheme concocted by his retired corporate psychologist neighbor (Michele Aumont) to save his job. Pignon's bosses are sent doctored photos purporting to show the quiet accountant cavorting at a gay bar. And with the P.C. police on patrol, corporate leadership is suddenly terrified to dismiss him. The downside to saving his job in this manner is the way he's now regarded by co-workers who previously merely ignored him. Bloated bullies who work in shipping decide to beat him up. White-collar types whisper behind his back and make him a pawn for practical jokes. Others, however, regard Pignon with new interest. He isn't what he has seemed, and to some that makes him fascinating.
Veber strives to mine this set-up for two veins of laughter. In the low vein, the filmmaker reveals that condoms are the primary product produced by Pignon's company. Click, snap, point: Who better to become the company spokesman and symbol than a sexually active gay man? Thus we get Pignon as the central figure on the company float, riding down a parade route adorned with a giant rolled condom for a chapeau. I won't say I didn't laugh at some of this stuff, but I felt better about laughing elsewhere. In the higher vein, a set of snide upper-management types decide to torment company personnel director Felix Santini (Gerard Depardieu) by telling him that his coarse homophobia has now placed his own job in jeopardy and that the only way Santini can save his position is by befriending Pignon. Santini's clumsy gestures at chumminess and Pignon's perplexed responses produce comedy at its most delicious.
In significant part, Veber reworks strategies he's employed to considerable comedic success earlier. In Les Comperes and La Chevre, Veber teamed the husky bulldog Depardieu with fey whippet Pierre Richard for superb odd-couple comedy. The director is up to the same jarring juxtaposition of personalities this time out with Depardieu and Auteuil. In his more recent The Dinner Game, Veber set the stage for intellectual cruelty and then turned the tables on those who would humiliate others for sport. The practical jokers don't get quite the comeuppance they deserve, but here Pignon does ultimately prevail as he should, and we know all along he will. Consistent with the fundamental decency exhibited in The Dinner Game, Veber refuses to stoop to a comic device lesser storytellers would have made a central motif. No flamboyant gay man appears to proposition Pignon, because Veber would not want us to laugh at Pignon's discomfort at the expense of the real gay man's humiliation.
A key theme in all this is how people employ details, not to reach conclusions, but to bolster conclusions they've already reached. One day a man walks with a swagger; the next day his walk is a swish. One day Pignon is straight and boring; the next day he's gay and intriguing. We might presume that most of these exercises in making fact serve prejudice would produce negative consequences. But true to Veber's topsy-turvy world view, Pignon grows close to a son from whom he has been painfully estranged and finds romance just when he'd deemed his own romantic potential practically nil.
The exquisitely gifted Auteuil is wonderful in The Closet, and if the whole of the movie fails to rise to the hilarious levels of Les Comperes and The Dinner Game, the current film remains nonetheless a thoroughly diverting entertainment.
- Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil, right) gets career counseling from his retired psychologist neighbor (Michel Aumont) in The Closet.