La Cage aux Folles 2
The inversion of laughter

by Carolyn A. Durham

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 4-5
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES' (1979) remarkable success has been newly consecrated by the release of a sequel, a sign all the more significant since follow-up films are not yet standard practice in France. Because LA CAGE AUX FOLLES II does not begin to equal the original in coherence or in comedy, it more readily reveals the ideological substructure that supports both films. And so it invites us to examine what lies behind our willingness to laugh. LA CAGE AUX FOLLES may well conceal truly homophobic attitudes, as some critics have at least suspected. However, these are sustained in turn by a form of gynophobia, even more fundamental to the film, which allows a male-oriented culture, whether homosexual or heterosexual, to find the film “screamingly funny” (Lawrence O'Toole, Maclean's, 6 Aug. 1979, p. 44).

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES begins with a metaphor: a shot of the audience — middle class, heterosexual, and above all, liberal. They frequent the Saint-Tropez nightclub, where the film is set, to watch the transvestite shows staged by homosexual performers. The audience on camera represents by interior duplication the general public for sophisticated French comedies about homosexuality, and more specifically if less deliberately, the usual U.S. public for subtitled foreign films. In both cases, there seems to be a discrepancy of ideals and values between the performer and the spectator: between the homosexual transvestite and the heterosexual couple, between the film LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and the public who appreciates it.

In fact, the film appropriately deems this particular audience sufficiently important to reproduce it on camera in a priority role. The nightclub audience appears in the opening and closing scenes of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, and thus it functions as a central framing device. The complicity between the film and its straight audience turns out to be one of director Edouard Molinaro's primary subjects. Although gay reviewers of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES have paid careful attention to the important issue of audience response, I fear they are mistaken in thinking that the straight spectators around them misread the film or laugh in the wrong places (see Gerald Hannon, The Body Politic, Sept. 1979, p. 34, and Vito Russo, New York Native, p. 22). LA CAGE AUX FOLLES serves not to challenge but to reinforce popular conventions; and such is, in major part, the film's ideology.

We need hardly expect a commercially successful film in 1979-81 to present a favorable picture of homosexuals and to encourage understanding or even tolerance in its audience. Yet, some reviewers of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES have bent over backward to interpret the film in this light. They justify their own favorable commentaries by an insistence on the experience of the main characters Renato and Albin (played by Ugo Tognazzi and Michael Serrault) as generic. Time's Richard Schickel reads the films portrayal of gay experience as a comforting assurance that anyone can manage:

“Though the gays must make eccentric adjustments to the exigencies of living, their behavior is viewed as no more unusual than the quirks everyone develops to get through the day as pleasantly as possible.” (20 Aug. 1979, p. 58).

Maclean's O'Toole compares Renato's and Albin's disguises to those “we all attempt" out of insecurity, self-defense or concern for reputation. Certainly Molinaro's film adopts the perspective of its two central characters, both gay. But this point of view does not imply any acceptance of their situation as representative of the human condition nor even any belief in its resemblance to that of actual homosexuals.

Rather, the identification established with Renato and Albin allows a ready defense to offer to those who question a willingness to laugh at gays. It gives the straight, liberal spectators at whom the film is aimed both the confidence that they are laughing with and not at the homosexuals of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. They can have the conviction that the film makes fun of everyone, not just of gays. Indeed, the audience buys its right to laugh at gays by agreeing to laugh first at the bourgeoisie, that is, at itself. Because the spectators mock those who are their own representatives within the film, the Charrier family, they escape personal implication. At the same time, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES presents viewers with a comforting stereotypical portrayal of homosexuals that reinforces many people’s deepest convictions. The film permits them to continue to believe that gays are what they really thought they were all the time.

It may be useful at this point to recall briefly the central action of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Renato and Albin own the Saint-Tropez nightclub of the film title in which Albin performs as a transvestite singer. As they are about to celebrate their twentieth year as lovers, Renato's son Laurent (Remy Laurent) arrives to announce his engagement to the daughter of Charrier (Michel Galabru), secretary of the ultra-conservative "Union for Moral Order." Laurent insists that during an impending get-acquainted visit from the Charrier family, Renato must send Albin away, get their maid Jacob out of drag, and transform himself into a straight diplomat. This proposal provokes anger and hurt in Albin, whose jealousy is further aroused by Renato's decision to re-establish contact with Laurent's mother Simone (Claire Maurier) in an effort to provide Laurent with a traditional family structure. When Simone is delayed, however, Albin takes her place at dinner. The ensuing complications lead predictably to the exposure of Renato and Albin as gays. Fortunately for the young lovers, Charrier compromises his own reputation as well; harassed by reporters, he must dress in drag to escape from the nightclub. Thus the film can end happily with the marriage of Laurent and his fiancée.

Perhaps the most serious symptom of Molinaro's ambivalence about homosexuality, and the only one of immediate interest here, is making a film that implicitly advocates heterosexuality. Renato offers only the briefest defense of the lifestyle he has chosen, a single sentence asserting his own self-identity, before totally acquiescing to Laurent's plan of disguise, denial and deception. Albin's jealousy of Laurent's mother Simone proves, moreover, extremely well justified. At their first meeting some years past, Renato and Simone conceived Laurent. At their second encounter, they are well on their way to having sexual relations again when Albin's sudden intrusion in Simone's office prevents the actual consummation. Albin's reaction — "Every time you're with that woman, the same thing happens” — sums up the situation precisely. Renato's objection that it has only occurred twice in twenty years is irrelevant. What counts is the rigorous consistency of the pattern and not the number of times it is repeated.

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES delivers an absolutely clear message: Renato's instincts are heterosexual. Each time he encounters Simone, he desires her, attracts her easily and strongly, and immediately acts on his passion. If Renato lives with Albin as a homosexual, we must therefore believe that it is only because he has not had ready access to the "right" woman. This determination to undermine Renato's chosen erotic identity may well explain the total absence of (homo)sexuality that gay critics have consistently noted in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and its sequel (see, for example, Jack Babuscio, Gay News 212). Renato's son Laurent, representative of the next generation, chooses heterosexuality openly. Renato and Albin specifically sacrifice their homosexual life style to Laurent's happiness so that the film may end with a wedding, the celebration par excellence of the institution of heterosexuality.

How then can we explain the lack of a gay outcry at the release and the subsequent popularity of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES? Certainly the recent response to CRUISING proves the possibility of an openly hostile reaction to films viewed as harmful to the gay community. Some critics find gays themselves responsible for the success of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (Michel Alain, Attitude, July 1979, p. 15. In general, despite reservations and ambivalence, the gay press reveals close to unanimous support for the original film and even admits periodically to a certain fondness for the sequel. Justifications vary widely, ranging from politically unreflective (but no less irresistible) laughter (Roger Frye, Gay Community News, 28 March, 1981) to conscious political solidarity with the effeminate males portrayed by Renato and Albin (The Body Politic). Moreover, the almost total absence of gays on screen — particularly in leading roles, in predominantly sympathetic portrayals, and in commercially successful films — may suffice in itself to explain the generally favorable gay response to LA CAGE AUX FOLLES.

Apparently straight critics are no better positioned to raise questions in the name of gays. Not surprisingly, The Village Voice (Tom Allen, 14 May, 1979, p. 50) pans LA CAGE AUX FOLLES as an unfit vehicle for a gay statement, but only in passing. The Nation's Robert Hatch (1May,l979, p. 581) continues to defend the film as “wholesome" even as he recognizes that those directly implicated may not be in a position to concur:

“LA CAGE AUX FOLLES capitalizes on the kind of hysterical exhibitionism that serious minded homosexuals repudiate. The film is funny enough, if you're not in the line of fire, but I'm not prepared to say that the film is entirely harmless.”

Hatch's statement would be more readily applicable to the Jean Poiret play on which the film is based and which indeed takes homosexuality as its central subject. Consequently, the play includes an internal criticism of Jacob's and Albin's behavior in such accusations as that of Georges, the Renato character in the play: "You're practicing infantile homosexuality." (Paris: Presses Pocket, 1979, p. 79).

But the film version of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES is not really about homosexuality at all. The standard sex roles played by the “husband" Renato and the "wife” Albin permit this apparent nonconformist couple to be subsumed in the heterosexual norm, which the film generally advocates. Moreover, the plot makes women the authentic, if covert, subject of attack. On the one hand, the laughter of straight spectators at the conservative Charrier family produces a self-chastisement that frees them to retain their prejudices against gays. On the other, the underlying mockery of women achieves an even more important catharsis that permits all laughter at males, homosexual or heterosexual, ultimately to pass as harmless.

The primary focus of laughter in the film is Albin, the "female" homosexual whose identification as woman can be glimpsed in the adjectives straight reviewers select to describe him: “outrageously bitchy" and "hysterical" (Newsweek); "a menopausal hysteric" (Time). Before Albin actually appears on screen, Renato identifies him as female – “I'll kill her.” Albin's behavior in his first scene offers a paradigm of stereotypical female behavior, a complete catalogue of conventional female flaws as men have defined them. Before entering our field of vision, Albin throws an object that shatters a mirror: women are temperamental and destructive. In exasperation, Renato calls the doctor: women are ill. The doctor speaks baby talk to Albin: women are children. Albin suffers from depression and apathy, classic female disorders, and expresses a wish to die. Thus he manages to illustrate both female passivity and over-dramatization at the same time. In the midst of an outburst of complaints and laments, Albin, suddenly distracted by the doctor's interrupted dinner, begins to discuss cooking: women are capricious and, ultimately, domestic. Offered a new supply of tranquilizers, Albin produces dozens of them (which he swallows at regular intervals throughout LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and its sequel): women are hysterical. Even after the doctor's departure, Albin still fails to prepare for his nightclub number, an event that obviously repeats itself nightly: women are always late; women have no sense of responsibility.

Importantly, Molinaro does not simply portray Albin as the tyrannical and spoiled prima donna, as often male as female, which he originally incarnated in Jean Poiret's play. Should any doubt remain about the precise nature of the stereotype held up as a target for our laughter, Albin becomes finally the typical shrewish wife, vain and unreasonable. He accuses Renato of having failed to appreciate his recent weight loss, of not noticing his new outfit, of spending less time with him. Such "facts" lead Albin to a traditionally female series of accusations: you're neglecting me, you're taking me for granted, you don't love me anymore, you're cheating on me. At the end of his outburst, Albin encourages Renato to hit him, a wish that is satisfied as the sudden cut to a new scene produces a humming Albin, in costume, ready to descend to the stage. This final male message is as clear as it is destructive. Not only does violence against women keep them in their places, they like it; in fact, they ask for it. Certainly, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES is not the first film to preach such a dangerous doctrine. But the message proves no less threatening for being concealed in a light-hearted comedy (apparently) about homosexuals.

With the visit of the Charrier family imminent, Renato must get rid of Albin to pull off successfully the masquerade Laurent seeks; as usual, a woman seems the source of the problem. Renato first attempts indirection: apparently women are too fragile to handle the truth. When this tactic fails, Renato appeals to Albin through a traditionally female code of behavior: self-sacrificial altruism. If Albin really wants Laurent's happiness, he will leave of his own accord. In the execution of his scene of departure, Albin continues to illustrate negative female characteristics. His behavior always contains a note of emotional blackmail, of female manipulation, which culminates in his threat of suicide. Albin finally uses his physical weakness successfully to force Renato to revoke his decision.

In the course of Albin's recovery and reconciliation with Renato, the famous "toast" scene takes place, consistently cited by film critics, both gay and straight, as the funniest sequence in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Like many gay critics, David Ansen of Newsweek (13 Aug. 1979, p. 77) interprets this episode, in which Renato attempts to teach Albin to butter toast “like a man" and to walk "like John Wayne,” as a "sly comment on our unexamined assumptions about masculinity and femininity." Yet, this explicit treatment of virility, here mockingly identified with decisive gestures, physical strength, and eventually violence, permits the typically female behavior of Albin to stand unquestioned. If he is in a position to be insulted by the men at the bar, it is because of his vain need to "freshen up a bit." His reaction when verbally assaulted is to run for a male protector whom he later "pays" with his ego-boosting admiration of Renato's bravery.

Although Albin is the primary focus of the criticism directed against women, Molinaro uses female characters and attitudes toward them for reinforcement. Renato centers his negative reaction to the news of Laurent's marriage entirely on the girl — the "salope" (slut). In theory, the scene reverses roles since the traditional matrimonial comedy would portray a father concerned about losing his "little girl" to a man who could never prove himself "good enough" for her. Feminist critics such as Molly Haskell (From Reverence to Rape, New York: Penguin Books, 1973) have been quick in recent years to praise any film that challenges stereotypical sex behavior on the grounds that the single most important factor in improving the image of women lies in increasing the range of possible character traits and types of behavior open to them, even when this means critical portraits. But we must not value content to the exclusion of form. In the case of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, where the underlying structure of attitudes stands unchallenged, Molinaro's narrative inversion merely serves to let pass unseen an entirely traditional attack on women. He has cleverly created a situation in which men can openly call women bad names and have it accepted as comedy. Moreover, Renato's behavior serves in passing to reinforce the standard myth that homosexuals hate women.

Not surprisingly, the Charrier family also helps to further the denigration of women. We are offered two new versions of stereotypical femininity, both defined by their (lack of) sexuality: the blond virgin and "the ice-cold mother of the bride” (Brendan Gill, The New Yorker, 28 May, 1979, p. 122). Charrier's political career and the future of his "Union for Moral Order" have been endangered when his superior, the President Berthier, is found dead in the arms of a woman who is a prostitute, a minor, and a black. The message is clear enough: women threaten individual men and the male-established moral order of the world. But Mme. Charrier, eager in any case to arrange a proper marriage for her daughter, immediately understands that in a society in which women are virtually interchangeable, a "good" one can be substituted for a "bad." The virgin's sacrifice — a big white wedding — will erase the prostitute's (black) stain.

Aside from furnishing a new negative image of women, the characteristics of the prostitute link racism and sexism, common in Western society. Albin himself performs Marlene Dietrich in blackface in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES II. The other homosexual transvestite who appears with exaggerated and stereotypical female mannerisms in both films is Jacob, the black maid who, significantly, dresses "like a whore," and whose job adds the negative criterion of class to those of race and sex.

Poiret's play allows Jacob a number of lines in which he openly mocks his "masters" for their racism. In the transposition to the screen, Molinaro abandons the exorcism effected by these explicit accusations, so that the filmed stereotype functions in silence, thus reinforcing conventional attitudes. I would not for a moment claim that Molinaro's intentions are overtly racist or overtly sexist, but the change in Jacob from stage to screen may help us to grasp the hidden assumptions of the film. Molinaro's failure to avoid suspect signs of prejudice — a black servant in a white household, for example — indicates a low level of consciousness, an almost total lack of awareness of the existence of a social problem. Such blindness or blissful ignorance can explain Molinaro's using hostility to women as the very substructure of his film. This substructure is unexamined, unexplained, and still so "natural" as to be invisible, no doubt, for Molinaro himself and, unfortunately, for much of his film's audience.

The use Molinaro makes of Charrier himself, who within his own milieu plays a fool's role comparable to that of Albin, proves revealing. With their initial appearances on camera, Molinaro begins to establish the parallel: we see both Charrier and Albin sneak the chocolates they are not allowed. Already Molinaro associates Charrier with self-indulgent and weak willed women as well as with Albin. And in the film's finale, Charrier is forced to dress in drag to escape the photographers and reporters who lie in wait outside the club.

In Poiret's play, everyone, including Georges (Renato) and Laurent, puts on female clothes, but Molinaro keeps his ideological message pure: only those who are ridiculed and ridiculous are women or, one is tempted to deduce, only women are ridiculous. Thus, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES II contains a parallel episode. The sequel announces a potentially promising switch when the secret agents protecting Albin are forced into disguise. But although the agents dress as gays and attempt to imitate the effeminate behavior that Molinaro apparently equates with all homosexuality, they do not dress as women. Moreover, the single scene in which they attempt their masquerade – poorly — ends in a fistfight. A scene that seems about to challenge traditional assumptions once again ends in a reinforcement of convention.

In a final assault on women, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES attacks all three mothers. Simone represents the bad mother who willfully abandons her child at birth and admits herself that she was "never very maternal." Although in Poiret's play Laurent himself invites Simone to Saint-Tropez, in Molinaro's film version he harbors serious resentment against his mother. By extending the negative treatment of women explicitly to include Mme. Charrier, the "good" mother, the film especially reveals its determination to denigrate women. Molinaro places Mme. Charrier in a purely gratuitous situation, the only function of which can be to make her appear ridiculous: Renato leaves Mme. Charrier staggering under the cumbersome weight of a huge crucifix.

Albin, disguised as Laurent's mother, offers another illustration of the hysterical female, newly fussy and silly. Albin is forced into this final disguise by his inability to look successfully masculine. Ansen characterizes the character’s appearance in a three-piece suit as an "attempted butch masquerade" (my emphasis). Thus Albin's fundamental identification as female is confirmed by his failure to succeed where all women fail, in an attempt to join the masculine world.

Albin's problems in the sequel to LA CAGE AUX FOLLES remain specifically female, although he is now confronted with the added indignity of age and its threat to his attractiveness and ability to please. Molinaro humiliates him not only as woman but also as a woman who persists in behaving as male society has taught him when the role is no longer becoming. If plot were of any importance, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES II would end a good forty minutes before Molinaro abruptly introduces a lengthy Italian sequence. Richard Schickel makes the disturbing comment (Time, 2 March,1981, p. 52) that only at this point does "the picture come alive." Jack Babuscio goes even further to identify this "very funny scene" as "unquestionably the best, most inspired in the film." Yet, dramatically the episode is totally gratuitous. Its only purpose and coherence are ideological.

In Italy, Albin is forced to be a woman in one of the few ways he has not yet tried — he must serve men, eat apart, work hard and constantly while men play. Renato adapts entirely too easily to his male role as lord and master. For what precisely is Albin being punished if not for being female, for imitating the character and behavior of women so effectively that he has finally earned the right to the female condition? Ironically, this may be the only moment in either film when the possibility of comedy depends on the truth of Albin's maleness and consequently on his ability to escape at any moment a degrading, humiliating situation whose inevitability for the women born into it can only be seen as tragic. Such an unspoken acknowledgement of essential male privilege may well explain why this episode alone seems consistently to arouse the same puzzling approval in gay men that it does in straight.

Such remarks as I make here normally call forth the protestation that the critic is "missing the point," focusing on clearly secondary aspects of the film, or not dealing with the film as a whole on the terms that it sets out for itself as an artistic work. Moreover, some readers will surely suspect that I lack a sense of humor. But, of course, precisely those elements of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES that are "beside the point," "secondary" — and therefore never confronted openly — constitute its ideology and so permit the constant reinforcement of attitudes unacceptable if voiced aloud. We can laugh at LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and even at its sequel. Indeed, it is hard not to. But laughter need never blind us to the discrete social and political messages contained in the most entertaining of films, for these messages function best when we show our willingness to ignore them.