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'The Closet'

French farce clothes Auteuil as sympathetic everyman

Friday, July 27, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Poor Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil).

His only crime in life: Being boring. Other people consider him a dullard. A hard worker, yes, but someone who is expendable.

 
 
'THE CLOSET'

RATING: R for sexual situations and frank sexual language.

STARRING: Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu

DIRECTOR: Francis Veber

Critic's Call 3 stars

   
 

When he and his colleagues at a condom factory line up for their annual company portrait, Pignon is out of the photographer's frame. He quietly steps away, to no objection. Later, Pignon is in the restroom when he overhears a conversation about his impending dismissal from the accounting job he's held for 20 years. When he phones his ex-wife and teen-age son to tell them, they let the answering machine pick up as they dash for the door.

But Pignon finds a sympathetic listener and ally in a new neighbor, Belone (Michel Aumont), a retired industrial psychologist. In the French film "The Closet," now at the Squirrel Hill Theatre, Belone hatches a scheme to enable Pignon to keep his job. In the end, it transforms the man's reputation, outlook and life.

The older man suggests Pignon come out of the closet and admit he's gay. He's not, but sending a signal that he is would protect his job. Pignon insists the strategy cannot work but Belone isn't recommending his neighbor "camp it up." Just be the same discreet (and discrete) person he's always been; what will change is his co-workers' perception of him.

To seed the rumor mill, Belone doctors some salacious photos and mails them to Pignon's employer. They are quickly copied and circulated and touch off a series of comic and occasionally sobering events involving his former wife and son, the women who share his office and a macho, homophobic colleague named Felix Santini (Gerard Depardieu) who coaches the company's rugby team and is tricked into courting Pignon's favor. Seeing Pignon with a plate of beets, Santini smiles broadly and volunteers, "I had shredded carrots."

Director-writer Francis Veber wields a light touch as he delivers a message and some merriment. He's like a chef who uses small amounts of the finest ingredients, be they homegrown herbs or shaved chocolate. In this case, his recipe includes two of France's finest leading men, Auteuil and Depardieu.

Auteuil, most recently an island military commander in "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" and a knife thrower in "Girl on the Bridge," is a calm comic foil for the zaniness that erupts around him. Female officemates who religiously refuse his kind offer of coffee each morning are suddenly calculating ways to get him to shed his shirt -- so they can see if he really has the tattoo shown in the photo.

Although Depardieu retains the dignity robbed in "102 Dalmatians," where he played an evil furrier, he undergoes the most drastic transformation in the shortest period of time. But it's all in the service of laughs, which the subtitled film provides in a modest dose.

On the surface, the plot sounds like something out of a "Friends" episode or a French farce sure to be recycled by Hollywood. But this tale of a man who marvels, "I came out of a closet I never went into," is given a sympathetic (your heart goes out to Pignon from scene one), sophisticated and adult twist. It's a bit like a summer gelato, not filling but rather refreshing.

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