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Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2002
It's a wonderful lie
By KAORI SHOJI
Not all French movies aspire to be so French, as demonstrated by the low Frenchness Factor of "Le Placard (The Closet)." There are no pouting, chain-smoking Lolitas throwing non sequiturs over cafe tables at morose, chain-smoking guys, hunched into overcoats. There are no nymphets throwing household items over the balconies of their fashionable 10th arrondissement apartments in a wild tantrum. There are no picturesque families in Provence strutting lifestyles straight out of Marie Claire Maison, with beautiful mamans clicking their heels on village cobblestone pavements.
No, "Le Placard" sheds the exotic for a more universal appeal. It has something we can truly relate to and sympathize with; something that does not cause one to say, "Yeah, well excusez-moi!" and go home with an inferiority complex over an inability to look good while parading naked in front of one's boyfriend with daisies stuck in one's hair. I am happy to report that there's not one daisy in "Le Placard." There's just this fellow called Monsieur Pignon (Daniel Auteuil), who is a loser by any national standard.
Divorced by a wife who found him utterly boring and ignored by his teenage son, Pignon is friendless, gutless and plagued by ulcer pains. He works in the accounting department of a condom-manufacturing firm, and his boss is an attractive single woman whom he has never even thought of asking to dinner. He doesn't work out or play sports. He goes to work in a dark suit and icky tie, thereby enhancing his invisibility. Monsieur Pignon is sober and clean-shaven, but he is utterly devoid of what our grandfathers used to call "umph." So when the day comes for his department to downsize, Pignon's name is at the top of the list.
The only person willing to help him out is retired next-door neighbor Belone (Michel Aumont), who suggests a trick: Send a letter to the firm that accuses Pignon of being gay and accompany it with a fake compromising photo. This ploy works wonderfully. The president (Jean Rochefort) sees right away that to fire a homosexual employee would reflect badly on the gay community, who are, after all, an important market.
Pignon gets to stay and his co-workers begin to look at him through new eyes. Macho homophobe Felix Santini (Gerard Depardieu) suddenly wakes up to the fact that bullying Pignon, as he had done in the past, can lead to a discrimination suit or getting fired himself. In what turns out to be the funniest segment in the movie, Santini falls over himself trying to befriend Pignon and even giving him little gifts. The women in the accounting department wonder aloud about his body and what he must have to attract other men. People who had passed right by him now stop and stare.
Through it all, Pignon remains exactly the same. He doesn't contradict the rumors or the letter. He doesn't say one word in his defense. He simply goes on being the stiff, conscientious, polite man he had always been. This adds to his new shroud of mystery. Pignon's boss, Mademoiselle Bertrand (Michele Laroque), finds herself increasingly intrigued. Is he really gay? Her curiosity escalates to a point where Pignon misinterprets her actions as sexual harassment.
There's something of Hollywood's Golden Age about this film -- the gentle irony of the message, the innocence of the characters, the leisurely pace of the story. The way director Francis Veber patiently ties all loose ends into a cozy happy ending. (James Stewart could have played Pignon, and perhaps Katherine Hepburn could have played his boss.) The dialogue, too, is devoid of sarcasm, cynicism or profanities. The characters speak to each other with a natural politeness, not least of all Pignon, who is the type of man to say the exact same things with the exact same little smile, every single day. Remarks about the weather and "May I get you some coffee?" make up the bulk of Pignon's conversation. Ironically, these same lines become strangely interesting once people presume that he's come out of the closet.
The laughs also come from poking fun at the corporate (and societal) logic of ignoring a man for his colorless character, then finding him interesting for his supposed sexual preferences. Just a decade ago we saw "Philadelphia," in which Tom Hanks played a lawyer who was fired for being gay. It's easy to say times have changed, but surely the pendulum has swung a bit too dramatically. "Le Placard" discusses this, too; it turns out that Belone had faced horrible discrimination at work when his co-workers discovered he was gay. Now French society the Gay Freedom Parade is broadcast on national TV. Belone knows it's too late to rectify the damage he suffered, but helping Pignon in his plight is a small consolation.
Pignon, on the other hand, must face the dilemma that his supposed gayness is the only thing that makes an impression on people. If he admits otherwise, he most surely will go back to being the invisible man. His angst is so hilarious yet so poignant that when he finally decides to assert himself on his own terms and consequently achieves a personal victory, we can't help but feel a bit proud. It's akin to seeing a drab, boring brother finally going out on a date.
Pignon isn't striking or lovable right off the bat, but he has a way of quietly growing on you. The amazing thing is that Daniel Auteuil, the brilliant and neurotic sex symbol of French cinema, should have taken on this role with such thorough adroitness. It's so effective that perhaps in the end you won't be able to remember what Pignon looks like . . . Uh, Pignon? Who's that?