To quote "Austin Powers'" Dr. Evil, the French have that "I don't know what" -- a phrase used to compliment indescribable but ineluctable qualities when people are at a loss for words. With "The Closet," writer/ director Francis Veber serves up the latest example to which the phrase applies. He proves not only that French sensibility is alive and well but that everything is in the eye of the beholder.
In this sophisticated comedy of errors, Everyman Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) is so ordinary and quiet that no one notices him, much less appreciates him -- not his ex-wife, teen-age son, co-workers or boss. An accountant on the job for 20 years at a rubber company that produces mostly condoms, Pignon discovers he's about to be fired -- not because he's incompetent but because he's deemed dull. His new neighbor Belone (Michel Aumont), a former corporate psychologist once fired for being gay, advises Pignon to secure his job by coming out of the closet he's never been in. Suddenly everybody sees Pignon in a different light, setting in motion a series of events that affects all the others.
Through his deft handling, Veber exploits the story's comic potential without losing sight of its humanity and a deeper analysis of behavior. While "The Closet" lacks the tight construction of Veber's earlier farce "The Dinner Game," a near perfect film marked by its zaniness, this movie offers an entertaining and delightful good time.
Veber assembles a remarkable dream cast of leading French actors who are a pleasure to watch. Besides the chameleonlike Auteil ("The Widow of Saint-Pierre") and Aumont ("A Sunday in the Country"), there's Michele LaRoque ("My Life in Pink") as Pignon's boss, Jean Rochefort as the company president and Thierry Lhermitte and Gerard Depardieu as co-workers. Depardieu plays a macho and homophobic personnel director whose whole world has turned upside down by film's end, and as usual, he delivers a forceful and sensitive performance which matches Auteuil's simple man who rises to the extraordinary.
Aumont plays the only gay character in the film with serenity, and with a definitely French twist, he's the most underplayed. But he holds the key to release Pignon from his doubts and insecurities. The director reveals, "What I wanted to avoid was using homosexuality to make a comedy." Instead, the humor grows out of the transformative effect a change of perception has on the lives of those who have pigeonholed Pignon, and the situational irony and brunt of the jokes are at their expense.