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25.4.04

Le Placard

The cruel but funny Le dîner de cons (1998) is given the title The Dinner Game in English, but it really means The Asshole Dinner. It was the most recent film I had seen by legendary French comic director and screenwriter Francis Veber (an even better site on Francis Veber, although only in French, is at Ecran Noir), and I thought it was merciless and delightful. (For an appreciation of Veber's work, see my review of his older movie Les Compères, back on November 4, 2003.) Now, through the weekly miracle that is Netflix, I have just seen Veber's more recent film Le Placard (The Closet, 2001), with Daniel Auteuil as the hapless protagonist who is named, as in so many of Veber's films, François Pignon.

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The Closet (Le Placard, 2001), directed by Francis Veber
At least since Molière, French comedy has been effective at parodying the game of social roles. In this film, Pignon is the awkward businessman, common, depressed, and risible. He wears a red tie to work on the day of the big company photo, only to be shoved out of the frame by his pushier coworkers. Everyone in his office knows that he will lose his job that day, everyone except him, until he overhears a conversation in the men's room. Some other classic moments that are rendered with exquisite simplicity by Daniel Auteuil: as he sits by the window, listening to radio news reports of the sort of banal tragedies we hear every day, he barely notices the toaster popping his toast right out the window; this happens the morning after he is talked out of leaping from his balcony by a nosy neighbor, who has just retired and decides to help Pignon keep his job, by telling him to pretend he is gay. The neighbor, Belone (Michel Aumont), captures Pignon's predicament perfectly when he jokingly tells him, after hearing his whole sad story, "Vous êtes chiant, moche physiquement, sans avenir, et plutôt con: voilà, vous sentez mieux, non?" (You're annoying, physically ugly, you have no future, and you're quite an asshole: there, you feel better, right?).

After Belone mails Photoshopped gay pictures of Pignon to his boss, Pignon panics, knowing that he cannot possibly fool anyone by camping it up, trying to act like a homosexual. When Belone agrees, saying that even the best actors trying to camp it up come off as fake and vulgar, we cannot help thinking of Veber's own La Cage aux Folles and its American remake, The Birdcage. The point of this kind of comedy is to skewer the hypocrisy of society's attitudes, in this case, homophobia. Pignon's boss is outraged when someone suggests that the photos were sent because Pignon will sue, claiming anti-gay discrimination, if he is fired. First, the boss (Jean Rochefort) complains with great sympathy, "Je n'ai rien contre les homosexuels, moi" (I have nothing against homosexuals, myself). One short beat later, he throws down the picture and shouts, "Il fait chier, ce p.d.!" (This faggot is pissing me off!). I howled at that juxtaposition. A big rugby-playing homophobe named Santini (Gérard Depardieu), frightened by the lies of coworkers who say that his pronounced homophobia will get him fired next, tries to be nice to Pignon in a series of overtures that become increasingly ridiculous. Pignon ends up on the company's float in the Paris Gay Pride parade, wearing a pink condom hat (the company makes rubber products, especially condoms, which is fodder for a number of jokes). The other main theme of Veber's films, the relationship of fathers and sons following a divorce, is found here, as Pignon's estranged son sees him on the float and finally sees a reason to spend a Saturday afternoon with his dad.

I have already written about how many American remakes have been made of Veber's French originals, mostly terrible. My fear that it was just a matter of time for Le dîner de cons to be ruined was justified, as I have since read that Veber himself, now living in Los Angeles, has been working on adapting the screenplay in English for DreamWorks, possibly with Roberto Benigni in a starring role, probably as Pignon, I would guess. An article from July 2001, The Nerdcage, by Peter Keough for the Boston Phoenix, includes the following fascinating information, with the quotations coming directly from Veber:
Hollywood seems at a loss when it comes to Veber. Take his current attempt to remake his last big French hit, Le dîner des cons, which was released here to little notice as The Dinner Game (1997). A wealthy publisher invites strangers to his dinner parties; what the guest doesn't know is that he or she is an "idiot" brought in to entertain the rest. Trouble started with DreamWorks' proposed title, Dinner for Schmucks. "It's difficult to remake. I've discovered through the process how much the comedy has strong cultural roots. There are things here that are very different than in Europe. They asked Milos Forman what was the difference between the Czechoslovakian Forman and the American Forman, and he said, when I was in Czechoslovakia I could write, and now I need the help of an American writer because I arrived too late to pick up the sensibility of the country. I understand that. I arrived too late to become an American. Billy Wilder was helped by [Charles] Brackett; he had great writers with him that were American."

Of course, some aspects of comedy are universal. With his modest but brilliant comedies and his knack for casting big stars (in addition to Auteuil, The Closet features French topliners Gérard Depardieu and Thierry Lhermitte), Veber can be compared to Woody Allen. Who, it turns out, is one of Veber's biggest fans. "I was in Los Angeles and he was showing Sweet and Lowdown. I said how much I liked what he was doing and told him that I was the writer/director of The Dinner Game. He said, 'I was your biggest publicist in New York'. Then he paid me a magnificent compliment when I arrived back in Los Angeles a couple of months ago. I had a fax from my producer that said Woody Allen wants to be the idiot in The Dinner Game, in the remake, and what do you think of that?

"I was so enthusiastic that I called DreamWorks, who were producing the film at the time, and they said they were not interested. Because he doesn't have much box-office clout. And it's sad because he's such a genius. But box office is the key word here."
Is anyone else as disgusted as I am about this? Why can't studio executives get the hell out of the way of people who know how to make movies? If you are like me and want to see Veber's latest film, Tais-toi, according to one recent source (Leonard Klady in Movie City News on April 22), there is no still no American distribution deal for it. Roger Friedman at FOXNews (on April 2) wrote that SNL's Jimmy Fallon had been considered and ruled out for Veber's planned American remake of Le Placard. Be afraid, very afraid. Ionarts resident cinephile, Todd Babcock, will hopefully have the inside news on Veber's plans.

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