Reading the review which I posted in my previous journal entry, we can see that most of the humour arises from the effeminate ways of Albin and of course Jacob, the maid, while Renato is the ever-patient, more “straight-acting” half of the partnership. And one could criticize the fact that, due to the time when it was filmed (the late 70s), there is no real sexuality on display in the film, apart from a few fairly chaste displays of affection.
But what we get instead is actually so much more significant. Although it is perhaps a by-product, rather than a specific intention, what we actually see is a middle-aged couple just like any other. Some might say that it is stereotypical that Albin is clearly “the woman” in the relationship and Renato is “the man”. Obviously that is a major source of the humour in the film, but every relationship has a dynamic, and what is wrong with this dynamic anyway?
The whole premise of the film would simply not work without Albin being flamboyant and effeminate, if it were easy for him to just “act straight”, if he were not Laurent’s (the son’s) “mother” – in opposition to his biological mother, who never had any involvement in her son’s life after she gave birth to him. The (probably unintentional) message that we get when we see Albin’s futile attempts to butter his toast and walk “like a man”, and how deflated and ill-at-ease he looks in a “normal” plain black suit, is this: we are who we are. We try to change and become something we are not at our peril.
It is precisely this that makes Albin’s entrance in drag as “maman” so effective. Not only is it unexpected but it makes us happy : Albin has found a way to play along with the deception and give the impression of a “normal” family without sacrificing who he is.
The pathos that Michel Serrault manages to infuse into this ultimately comic character makes all the difference and reveals his brilliance as an actor. Albin isn’t just a sexless cardboard cut-out caricature of an effeminate man. He is a real person, someone who is clearly in pain actually. He fears (like all of us), that he is getting older. He fears losing Renato, that he is no longer appealing, that he is losing his effect as a drag queen, that he is becoming grotesque.
The scene where Albin goes off to his cemetery (with his toothbrush!) and Renato goes after him, is one of the most moving depictions of love that I have seen in a film (and it happens to be about two men and in a farce no less!). They are both sitting on a bench together and Renato says that he will change his cemetery plans so that when he dies, he will be buried in the same place as Albin, in order to “carry on laughing forever”. Renato loves Albin because he makes him laugh – just like all couples laugh at each other. I cried a lot at that scene!
Also what strikes me about all three “Cage aux Folles” films, is that Albin and Renato are undoubtedly the heroes in the story – they are the ones who triumph in the end. In the original film, Albin helps Charrier to escape through the night club unnoticed by the press by dressing him up as a drag queen. It is funny for us to see Charrier’s obvious discomfort at this, and crucially, it is a way for Albin to gain the respect and trust of the conservative politician.
In the second film, Albin and Renato gain an award for their role in defeating some spies (yes really!) and in the third film (which is rubbish unfortunately), they gain half of a very large inheritance and estate in Scotland. So they are always the ones who succeed in the end. They are the heroes and main protagonists, rather than being just a humorous diversion – in that sense, the films are way ahead of their time.
For me, the main source of irony and humour in the film (the original) is that superficially, Albin and Renato are unconventional. They are two men who have raised a child together, they are openly gay, to say Albin is flamboyant is an understatement, and of course he is a drag queen, and often dresses in drag and uses make-up and items of female apparel outside the confines of the show as well. But at the same time, they are no longer young, they are not cool or edgy, they are not “hipsters”, they don’t take drugs. They are actually quite “boring”, just a middle-aged couple with a grown-up kid who love each other to pieces after all those years together. And for me, this is what makes the film so moving and effective.
Et voila, this is why La Cage aux Folles is a truly timeless classic.