“Playing gay is not an easy role,” a secondary character in The Closet tells the film’s protagonist, Francois. “Most actors who try are way-off, vulgar.”
This assertion from Francois’ neighbor is one example of the subtle commentary that takes place in Francis Veber’s The Closet. While a film about someone pretending to be gay immediately sets itself up for political exegesis, Veber manages to pull off a film that lets homosexuality exist as a given.
The Closet is foremost a brilliant comedy of manners about interoffice politics and masculinity. Veber paints up Francois as a somewhat likable but rather dull workaday type. When Francois discovers that he is losing his job, his neighbor Balone suggests that he pretend to be gay so that his company will be afraid to fire him. Veber’s tasteful sense of humor guides the comedy of the film, while the mistakenly outed Francois is played with great reserve by Daniel Auteuil.
What makes this film one of the best so far this year is not only its cleverness, but the elusive way that it treats the alleged progress of homosexuals in the past two decades. It happens that 20 years ago, Francois’ neighbor Balone was fired for his homosexuality. “Things are evolving,” says Balone. As a device to set up Balone’s motivation in helping Francois, it is heavy-handed, but it simultaneously serves as a basis for an inquiry into social progress. While things have clearly changed–Francois uses homosexuality to keep his job–Veber hints that the political correctness that often courts such changes is also a barrier to true understanding. Veber implies throughout the film–to great effect–that much “progress” is not the result of honest change but a P.C. keeping-up-of-appearances. Francois does not keep his job because his superiors are supportive of upwardly mobile gays, but because they are terrified of seeming homophobic. When Francois gets back in touch with his estranged son, Frank, it has more to do with a straight/bourgeois fascination with the other than any genuine desire for Frank to reconnect with his dad.
In an impressive subplot, two coworkers conspire to convince an oafish homophobe, Santini (Gerard Depardieu), that he must befriend the recently outed Francois or lose his job. When they come up with the ploy, a black friend tells them that they are being “too harsh.” But when they tell him that Santini called him a spade, he says, “OK, give it all you’ve got.” While Veber acknowledges the Santini character as a repugnant racist homophobe, he questions the positioning of racial or sexual orientation-based social games. The plot against Santini supports a great comic strain in The Closet, but Santini eventually emerges as a somewhat sympathetic simpleton.
In this way, Veber plays to his straight audience almost apologetically: The Santini character could be seen as a sympathetic portrait of straight male rage about the increasing acceptability of homosexuality. But the seeming contradictions here are actually a dialectical stance on gay progress. It’s not that Veber’s approach is ambiguous, but that progress itself is a gray area. Near the end of the film, a newly confident Francois tells his wife, “By pretending not to love women, I became a man.” This is a statement that lends itself to multiple interpretations; it could potentially offend or exhilarate anyone with visceral feelings about homosexuality or sexism.
By refusing to clear things up, Veber points to the speciousness of the progress that Balone’s character believes in at the beginning of the film. As a whole, The Closet can be read in a number of ways, at least one of them pointing to its unintentional homophobia. But as a comedy of manners that plays off of our confused thinking about homosexuality, this seems to be entirely the point.