What happens when you find yourself watching an ostensibly “gay movie” in which only one gay character appears, and in a secondary role? Does it still qualify? And what, exactly, constitutes a lesbian or gay film anyway? The answers to these questions are, of course, complicated and related to each other. These questions are further complicated by Francis Veber’s new French bedroom farce, The Closet. The film demonstrates just how a movie may be directly concerned with questions of sexual minority rights and social enfranchisement, without being overtly “gay,” in terms of featuring stereotypical characters, visual homoerotics, outraged/morose AIDS sentiment, a camp sensibility, or all the above.
The Closet attests to the cultural and political advances made by sexual minorities in the recent past in being a gay movie almost entirely evacuated of gay characters. In fact, Veber is no stranger to “gay films” that are a bellwether of the changing place of sexual minorities in and in relation to “mainstream”/heterosexual communities. He wrote the original screen version of Le Cage Aux Folles, as well as its U.S. version, directed by Mike Nichols, The Birdcage. Both of these films (despite embracing I would call some pretty terminal cliches about gay folk) can be read as reflective and productive of both heterosexual perceptions of gayness as “lifestyle” and as community. And the same can be said for The Closet. You see, The Closet isn’t so much (or at all, really) about queer people living queer lives in queer communities, but rather about some of the ways in which gayness functions as a social category. More to the point, the film is about how gayness is experienced, interpreted, and “made sense of” by non-gay individuals and communities. At the same time that gay individuals and cultures are disappeared from most of The Closet, the film recognizes that even if sexual minorities have become politically and legally enfranchised in most Western nations, overt homophobia, social intolerance, and physical violence against gays and lesbians continues to be a fact of daily life in these same countries.
The pervasive threat of homophobia and violence experienced by many gay men and women every day suffuses The Closet and the new “gay” life of its hero. Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) is a staff accountant at prophylactic factory. Sounds like the start of some sexy romp, no? Well, Pignon (as he is called by everyone in the film) is actually something of a bore. His wife left him two years prior, claiming he was a “drag” and taking their teenage son with her. He’s been working the same job for twenty years, but times being what they are, the company is in the process of downsizing, and Pignon finds himself about to be jobless in addition to wife-less and family-less. As he considers throwing himself off his high-rise balcony, he’s interrupted by his new neighbor, an older gent named Belone (Michel Aumont). After hearing of Pignon’s woes, Belone devises a plan for him to at least keep his job: he’s to start a rumor that he is gay and don’t do anything to deny it, that way the company won’t fire him for fear of a sexual discrimination lawsuit. To help him, Belone offers to digitize Pignon’s face onto some photos of leather-boys in compromising positions he has handy, and to mail them to Pignon’s boss anonymously.
When Pignon protests that he isn’t gay, Belone assures him that the fact is immaterial; all that matters is that other people believe he is gay. Pignon’s enactment of “being gay” proceeds not as some flamboyant “flamer,” which would be, according to Belone, “vulgar in the extreme,” but rather by behaving in the same manner as he always has, and letting his co-workers and family read him how they will in light of this new information. Belone is exactly right, and this is The Closet‘s most pointed insight. While identity is personal, it is also intersubjective; while it is a function of who/what we claim to be, it is also produced by external interpretation. This is not necessarily news. Anyone who is non-traditionally gendered—whether gay, straight or otherwise sexually inclined—can tell of the harassment, bullying, and violence they suffer at the hands of peers who perceive them to be “gay.”
Still, it’s a revelation to Pignon, who experiences all this firsthand, perhaps most acutely when two macho co-workers, threatened by the presence of a presumably gay man in their midst, follow him home one evening and bash him in the parking garage of his apartment building. Belone’s insight into how our own identities are experienced through other people’s reactions and interpretations is exactly right. He is, after all, the film’s single gay character and thus, I suppose more familiar with identity politics. And as an older man (in his early 60s would be my guess), he has presumably endured the social and political changes affecting sexual minorities over the latter half of the twentieth century. Indeed, when asked why he is being so helpful to Pignon, he replies that it is because, “thirty years ago, I was fired for the same thing that is going to save your job.” Belone understands that today, being gay is no longer necessarily anathema to heteronormative cultures. Of course, one of the film’s blind spots is that this inclusiveness is really only for some gay men. It is questionable whether the “vulgar” flamer Belone speaks of, or an m-t-f trans individual might find the same congeniality among the managerial business culture of which Pignon is a part.
Nonetheless, the effects of Pignon’s “coming out” on this rather small and tight-knit business community are The Closet‘s primary concern, and provide its humor. Somewhat refreshingly, the film does not use gay characters acting like “flamers” for comic relief, but rather finds its humor in the spectacle of perplexed straight folk and how they relate personally to Pignon’s “gayness.” So, his Accounts Department co-worker Ariane (Armelle Deutsch) declares that she “always knew” he was gay, and that he is much more sexy and interesting now that he is out. His departmental boss, Mlle. Bertrand (Michele Laroque), while startled by the announcement, refuses to believe it and eventually becomes Pignon’s love interest (hey, it’s a romantic comedy, it’s gotta have a love interest for our non-gay “gay” hero). The company CEO, Mssr. Kopel (Jean Rochefort), initially flummoxed and homophobic, comes around to see that this turn of events can be an excellent marketing tool for a condom manufacturer, and commissions a float for the Paris Gay Pride Parade, atop of which he places Pignon. On seeing the parade on the news, Pignon’s son Franck (Stanislas Creviller) experiences a renewed interest in his dad, whom he previously considered a dullard, to be avoided at all costs.
The most complicated response to Pignon’s “coming out” comes from his co-worker, Felix Santini (Gerard Depardeiu). Santini is the captain of the company rugby team and an all-around homophobe with no time for “sissy” men. When he is advised by some practical jokester co-workers that if his phobic rants against Pignon continue, he will get himself fired, Santini sets out to befriend Pignon and ends up courting him (he takes Pignon to a fancy restaurant and buys him a pretty pink cashmere sweater). Santini’s relationship to Pignon becomes increasingly complex and it seems that through Pignon, he will be able to come to grips with his own homosexuality; at least until Pignon rejects his suggestion that they move in together. Following this rejection, Felix breaks down and ends up institutionalized.
Though he recovers and returns to work, Santini’s “crisis of identity” is never resolved. But this is a good thing. Santini’s homophobia (and homophobia in general) cannot be so simplistically resolved as repressed homosexuality, just as homosexuality (or sexual identity in general) cannot be so simplistically defined as the gender to whom we are attracted. Ambiguously “gay” from beginning to end, The Closet challenges easy definitions of what constitutes gay and lesbian film, and yet nevertheless comes off (at least for me) as a decidedly “gay” film. More importantly, The Closet makes no claims to show what gayness “is,” but rather how it functions socially and politically, how it is interpreted and understood by non-gay people, and how that function is not produced by a singular or individual act but through the subjective interactions of all of “our” communities.