One of the most fascinating and unique aspects of French films is their essential “Frenchness” – the way in which the plot, characters and storytelling evince particular aspects of French culture. Many times, French films find their appeal in being uniquely ‘French,’ having meanings that are of particular importance to the French people. In spite of this, many important and popular French films carry with them a universality of meaning that spans cultures. In the case of the French films La Grande Vadrouille and La Cage Aux Folles, the setting of the story within French culture and locations allows the story to be centralized, but their central themes resonate with anyone who watches them – a possible explanation for their international success.
La Grande Vadrouille, the tale of French civilians who help a Royal Air Force bomber escape France during World War II, certainly relies on many aspects of the French culture to tell its central story. The overall premise lies in the ultimate sympathy for the French for the Allies during the war; the actions of the French civilians to help the war effort is also an interesting and comical callback to the French Resistance of World War II. The understated comedy of the vast majority of the film involves the ‘ordinaryness’ of these unassuming, provincial Frenchmen taking on the Third Reich in self-effacing ways; in one scene, for example, a French conductor merely snaps his baton into tiny pieces when he is told to shut down his orchestra by the Nazis. The kind of physical comedy French comedic superstar Jacques Tati was known for is also in full force in this film; heads knock against each other, pumpkins are thrown at Nazi soldiers, and doors slam in people’s faces. Crude sexual comedy also abounds, like fellatio imagery involving nuns and men staring up women’s skirts through manholes, lending itself to a quirky, lighter tone that befits its essential Frenchness.
La Cage aux Folles, the tale of two older gay men who must pretend to be husband and wife in order to please their son’s conservative future in-laws, carries that same sense of French laissez-faire in its plotting. The film’s central premise seems to live or die on French culture’s comparative permissiveness of gay couples and the drag lifestyle, as they are more or less accepted within their community. The conflict only comes from outside, when the conservative parents come calling. The French tradition of drag is used to great lengths for comedy in this film, as several characters dress up as women for the sake of entertainment and subterfuge. The conflict between the boring bourgeois and the flamboyant LGBT lifestyle relies greatly on the existence of said bourgeois as a French concept; being familiar with how stiff and mannerly such people are is a requirement to understand the comedic potential of the film’s scenes. The French sense of fussiness and continentalism is also evident in Albin and Renato’s constant, queeny bickering, centering it in that particular sense of humor.
Despite these innately French aspects to both of these films, there are elements that transcend their local origins and make them accessible and meaningful in a more universal sense. In the case of La Grande Vadrouille, the French caper comedy tells a fairly universal story of the conflict between war and peace; the tale of a small town and what it decides to do when it is faced with war on their doorstep. World War II itself was a worldwide conflict, and the plot itself involves an international sense of investment – French people helping a British officer escape the Germans. To that end, World War II becomes a universal setting that people of all nations can relate to. Furthermore, slapstick and physical comedy are universal methods of humor, which can generate laughs and convey ideas beyond language.
The same universality can be found in La Cage aux Folles – the essential story is that of an unconventional couple who manages to assert their love for each other in the face of societal resistance. The central conflict brings out a conflict in them: are they too flamboyant? Are they not normal? The scene in which Albin is asked to walk and eat like a man shows this insecurity with the couple, as they wonder whether or not they fit well together. In the end, love conquers all, even the resistance of a conservative couple who is initially unaware that Albin is a man. The fact that this film was remade in America as The Birdcage also demonstrates a similarity in central theme and attitudes that expands beyond its French origins.
While La Grande Vadrouille and La Cage aux Folles rely on centrally French attitudes to convey much of their tone and comedy, their essential meanings are universal. Through this perspective, La Grande Vadrouille becomes more than the French reaction to German oppression, but the universal tale of the innocent rising up to fight evil. Likewise, La Cage aux Folles asks the question of homosexuality’s ability to be accepted in normal society, a conflict that can be found in many countries and places, if not all of them.
Molinaro, Edouard (dir.) La Cage aux Folles. Perf. Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Serrault. United
Oury, Gerard (dir.) La Grande Vadrouille. Perf. Bourvil, Louis de Funes. 1966.