Saturday, September 19, 2009

Case study: La Cage Aux Folles vs.The Birdcage

I've mentioned my love for "La Cage Aux Folles" (Edouard Molinaro, 1978) before. Written originally as a play by Jean Poiret, and later adapted to the screen by Poiret, Molinaro, Marcello Danon and Francis Veber, this movie is definitely one of my all time favorite comedies.

Before writing this case study, I watched the American version of the film for the first time (Mike Nichols, 1996). What a sad and interesting experience that was. Sad - to see such a great story translate into such a (I thought) mediocre film. Interesting - to try and understand what it is exactly that makes it mediocre. I guess for someone who hadn't seen the French movie, the American one might be hilarious, but for me, a devoted fan of the French version, it wasn't. I guess it's s little like watching the American version of "The Office" after adoring the British one.

The plot (you can skip this if you've watched the movie)

The American "Birdcage" is very similar to the French in terms of story, with some adjustments to the American society of course, and a few original scenes that were written especially for it. So here is the basic plot of both films:

The son of a gay couple (owner of a drag shows club and his life partner, the main performer) is set to get married with the daughter of a member of the government's conservative party. The son has no relationship with his birth mother. The fiancée, scared of her conservative father, lies to him and says the boy's father is a diplomat (cultural attaché) and his mother is a house wife. The girl's parents decide to drive up and meet the boy's parents. The boy asks his father, just for that night, to pretend that he's a diplomat, remove any signs of him being gay from the house, and get rid of his partner for the day. While the media is following every step of the girl's father, whose party just gone through a major scandal, the girl's family enters the boy's parents' house. And the mess continues.

What makes the French movie so much better:

First difference that comes to mind is the beautiful soundtrack by Ennio Morricone (the American movie begins and ends with the cheesy "we are family"). Here's one of Morricone's beatiful melodies:

In both films, the boy's adopting father is an insecure, neurotic, high maintenance type of gal. One of his main comic features is a hysteric high-pitch scream that comes out of his mouth once in a while. But while the American character seems to scream only when he encounters an alarming or surprising situation, the French one does it as a general attitude. He screams when he's scared or alarmed, but also out of joy and enthusiasm. Watch the magnificent Michel Serrault (sorry, no subtitles on this one, but that's a scene where he enters the dinner with the girl's parents dressed as a woman, pretending to be the boy's mother, even though the boy and his father asked him not to take part in the dinner):

In the French film, when the boy tells his father he's marrying a girl, the father immediately calls her a "whore", then asks him what’s the whore's name. The next day, the father tells his partner that the boy will marry a girl, and he too replies by calling her a whore. In the American film, both fathers are also upset by the news of the marriage, by they don’t use the word "whore". It might sound like a small detail, but to me it definitely sets a different comic mood.

In the French film, it is well established that both the girl and her mother are afraid of the father. In the American version, set in a different year, most of the time it seems like deep inside, the girl (Calista Flockhart) doesn’t really care what her father thinks, and has an ironic approach towards her parents – which makes the whole encounter between the families a bit less dramatic.

Both movies end the same way: two mothers arrive to the dinner in which the parents of the boy and the girl meet for the first time, both of them claim they are the boy's mother. The first mother to arrive is the father's male companion, dressed as a woman, playing the part of a woman. The second mother to arrive is the boy's actual mother, whom he hasn't seen since he was a baby. At this point the girl's father asks: how many mothers does he have?

In the French version, it's his father who removes the wig from his partner's head, and says: he has two fathers. Us. In the American version it's the boy himself who removes the wig, saying: I have two fathers.

For me, the French resolution is more natural – the main characters are the two fathers, they didn't want to lie in the first place, so it makes sense that the father reveals the truth. In the American version, the boy becomes a character who has gone through some change during the day, coming to terms with his family, deciding not to lie anymore. It seems a bit forced and out of context, not to say educational.

A word about female characters

The only thing I don’t like about "La Cage Aux Folles" is the pour female characters. There are two couples of parents in the story. The two gay fathers are funny. The girl's father (at least in the French version) is hilarious. And only the girl's mother has hardly any comic depth. They could have played with her dreams of a wedding with a diplomat's son, make her more pathetic, but they chose to make her anemic.

I had the same issue with "Meet the Fockers", that has more female characters in it to begin with. And I want to declare here again, that I will try as hard as I can to make the female characters in my movie just as bold, funny and pathetic as the male ones.

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