At 63, French writer-director Francis Veber has enjoyed a long and successful career in both film and on the stage. He’s been responsible for no fewer than four plays, and visited Dallas recently to host a USA Film Festival screening of “The Closet” (“Le Placard”), the twenty-eighth picture he’s been involved with since 1969. The film can be seen as a counterpart to “La cage aux folles,” the 1978 international smash that Veber co-wrote (it was turned into a Broadway musical by Jerry Herman in 1983 and remade in English as “The Birdcage” in 1996). In that show, a gay man and his companion tried to pass for straight to fool his son’s conservative prospective in-laws; now Pignon (Daniel Auteuil), a straight man, pretends to be gay in order to save his job. In the process he gains the admiration of his estranged son (who lives with his ex-wife), and develops a complicated relationship with a homophobic co-worker, Santini (Gerard Depardieu).
Veber’s intention was to highlight the ways in which people react to an individual on the basis of their perceptions of him: “I wanted a man pretending to be gay without clowning. There’s something about the perception of others. If I say I’m gay, the perception of others will change completely even if I stay the way I am. He [Pignon] has the same suit, the same tie, the same behavior, but you can see in the eyes of the others that they start gossiping [about him].” The son’s changed attitude, he went on, is characteristic, though in a positive way: “It is better to have a father who has a personality–gay or straight–than a dull father. I understand this boy very well. Because if your father is a drag, you don’t know what to do with him because he’s so dull–you want to avoid him. And suddenly you discover his secret life, his shadowy part, then he’s profoundly interesting.” One major alteration made during the writing process involved Pignon’s culminating scene with his ex-wife; originally they were to have a happy reunion, but when Veber read his draft to a group of friends (“who are victims” in the refinement of the script, Veber noted), it came across as forced and unreal. As a result, Pignon now stands up to his brusque ex and stops pining after her.
“The Closet” works as a comedy with serious undertones, something which Veber wanted very much to achieve. The picture deals with the subject of bias against gays, which the director said is as prevalent in France as in the U.S. (“same thing exactly–liberal is something people pretend to be, but…we have that in France, too”), but does so in a humorous way. “I think it’s redundant to be heavy on a heavy problem,” the director observed. “To keep being light on a heavy problem” is much more effective; he cited the example of Lubitsch’s “To Be Or Not To Be” (1942): “It is a comedy, but it is so touching and heartwarming.” That’s the effect he was aiming at in “The Closet” too. But he didn’t want the comedy to go overboard: “I didn’t want to make ‘gay’ ridiculous.”
It helps, of course, that the project attracted France’s two top actors in Auteuil and Depardieu. It was the first time Veber had worked with Auteuil, and he was amazed by the star’s ability to achieve so much so subtly: “If you look at him in real life, he’s a little man. You wouldn’t notice him on the subway or the bus. You have to be talented to succeed without looking like…Brad Pitt, which is his case.”
Veber had worked with Depardieu on several occasions in the past, but this time was very different because of the actor’s sudden illness just as filming was to begin. “I was supposed to shoot on a Monday, and my agent called and told me that he’d gone to hospital for major surgery,” Veber recalled. “He was three hundred pounds, and he was lying on his bed [in the hospital] naked. He looked like Moby Dick, you know. And he had all these electrodes, and I remember he was holding my hand, and he said, ‘Wait for me.’ And I waited for five weeks. We stopped the shooting, and I waited for him. And he’s so strong that he recovered very fast, and he came back to the set. But I was scared because it was a multiple–a quintuple–bypass.” The crew shot around the ailing Depardieu as much as possible, but “we were obliged to stop for three weeks.” When Depardieu returned, some small changes were required. In a lunch scene between him and Pignon, Santini was originally slated to scarf down pieces of bread dipped in olive oil, but more healthful cabbages were substituted.
Veber is currently engaged in the remolding of his last success, “The Dinner Game” (1997), into an English script. But the process, he admitted, is extremely delicate. “I think it’s very difficult to remake a movie [in another language],” he said. “And I’m a leading example, because I’ve had seven of my movies remade, and most of them were terrible. When a producer buys a French movie to do a remake, he buys a premise and a concept, and then the problems start, because the mixture between the European sensibility and the American sensibility is very difficult to adjust. It becomes a kind of monster, like Frankenstein. Comedy has very strong cultural roots that action films don’t have. We Europeans think we look like you, but we are not at all the same people. I discovered how different we are,” he went on, while living in the U.S. (he has an apartment in Los Angeles where he does most of his writing). “Despite the outward appearances, it’s not at all the same sensibility.”
Veber also sees a distinct difference between American and French filmmaking in their attitudes toward writers. He argued that while Hollywood remains preeminent in action films and burlesque comedy like that of the Farrelly brothers, today’s screwball comedies aren’t anywhere near the quality of those of Wilder, Lubitsch or Sturges. And he suggested that this was because most of them are now written by committee according to formula: “Here writers are like tissues. You throw them away,” he laughed, noting that most scripts are eventually the work of “a football team of writers,” to the detriment of the result. (“But,” he immediately added, from time to time a masterpiece comes through–something like ‘Fargo’ or ‘American Beauty’ or ‘The Big Lebowski.’ And those are real masterpieces.”) In France, with a government-assisted cinema, the problems are different but almost as intractable. There writers have much more freedom and control, but often abuse it: “In France, what is terrible is that writers are self-indulgent. They love themselves. You have the feeling they don’t write for the audience–they write to please themselves, their wives, their children and the reviewers.” As a result, their films often appeal to virtually nobody.
Francis Veber, however, has shown himself one of the few individuals who can effortlessly move from one locale to the other, creating pictures like “The Closet” that are rapturously received by French audiences while being recognized in this country as so clever and well-structured that California executives often want to remake them. Veber would like U.S. viewers to accept them in their French form–“My hope,” he said wistfully after noting the success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “is that American audiences will start watching [the] originals”–but in the meantime he seems resigned to the remake process, as unsatisfactory as the results might be. And to hoping that at least a select group of American viewers will turn out for the subtitled version of a film as amusing and insightful as “The Closet.”