One of the most puzzling things about adolescence is the division between the in-crowd and the rabble. Puzzling, I should add, only when you are a confirmed member of the latter grouping; the popular and the admired comport themselves as if their unquestionable status were captioned by this famous motto. The more attentive among the uncool, however, quickly notice that the difference lies in not what is said and done but in the actor himself. The silliest pun can become a shibboleth, the stupidest gesture a signal, the cruelest prank an indication of superiority. What is particularly remarkable about adolescence and its conspiracies is how uncompromisingly bland the stratagems behind them seem once we reach adulthood. Not one joke, not a single sadistic moment will be worth a farthing to a mature and confident twentysomething who sees through cliques and clucks as any of us now should. How odd then that so many of adolescence's wicked games continue undeterred well into our greying years, and how many poor saps remain the subject of their colleagues' scorn. Which brings us to this charming film.
Our hero is François Pignon (the perfectly cast Daniel Auteuil), even if his heroism should be immediately questioned and harpooned. Though a cognate with "pinion," there is a certain contempt with which his surname is pronounced that English does not quite contain, but which suggests a cross between an irritating clink and an onion. Pignon is divorced from a loathsome shrew (Alexandra Vandernoot), whose one good deed in her entire existence may very well have been the birth of their son, Franck. The problem is that Franck, like the rest of humanity apparently, is convinced his father is an incorrigible loser. For his part Pignon definitely provides him with ample evidence. His job at a rubber factory in the accounting department has been for twenty years his only steady beam in a life of avalanches and cave-ins, if one considers his daily parking and coffee debacles to constitute a success. Nevertheless, it is not hard to detect that Pignon is a kind man, as are most pariahs if only because they cannot afford or do not know how to effectuate any other type of behavior. Pignon grins and bears his cruel fate because he has never really managed to succeed at anything. Were he in some isolated, underdeveloped village in an impoverished or war-ravaged nation with little hope of escape, we would hardly begrudge him his despair; but with a fine income, a modest but nice apartment, and a healthy existence in one of the richest countries in the world, the problem lies to a great extent with him.
Why does Pignon come to the office every day and succumb to his co-workers' sneers and taunts as if he deserved them? Why do all the men at his job think him unmanly and all the women think him boring? Perhaps because when one is insecure but wishes to conceal such misgivings and fears – and most of us huddle under that large circus tent – nothing makes one more liverish than a fool who accepts his insecurities and does nothing to combat or hide them. In other words, we hate this person because he comes off as the worst and most cowardly manifestation of ourselves. Pignon draws the ire most readily of the neckless thug Félix Santini (Gérard Dépardieu). Santini mysteriously holds the position of head of personnel, something akin to a human resources director, even though his hobbies are rugby and the belittlement of lesser beings. Since sports and cruelty are the time-honored pursuits of all high school jock bullies, Santini fulfils a stereotype that allows us to despise him and gravitate towards Pignon. While Santini smashes in his co-workers' teeth in another bone-crushing practice session, Pignon finds and adopts an adorable kitten who turns up one day on his balcony – just as, I might add, he was considering an unforgivable sin. And why such self-loathing? Because Pignon just discovered that, after twenty servile years, his neck is slated for the guillotine.
The kitten will be traced to a new neighbor, Jean-Pierre Belone (Michel Aumont), who just so happens to be a retired labor psychologist. For some people, work and its associated routines are coterminous, in which case retirement results in complete severance from the tasks of yesteryear; for others, of course, they will always practice what they have practiced until their last, wheezing breaths. Belone is someone who likes listening to people's problems because he truly believes there is no quandary he cannot solve. He understands Pignon's predicament all too well, having likely sat through months of such twaddle in humoring whiny patients, but this time something about the misery of his neighbor summons the altruist from within him and he offers Pignon a very odd piece of advice: spread the rumor that he is gay. The reasoning, in our politically correct days, might be obvious enough; but a rubber factory by definition boasts a clientele that, well, likes its rubbers: firing a man who has just outed himself would then be nothing less than a public relations nightmare. Belone goes one giant step further when he recommends that Pignon anonymously send touched-up photos to his workplace (Belone already has a template in mind). The gambit is taken, the pawn sacrificed (Pignon also has some affinity with the French word for this least powerful of chess-pieces), and Pignon goes into work not having changed a hair on his pointy head yet having assumed a shift of mythic proportions. The women at work, especially the dishy Ms. Bertrand (Michèle Laroque), are irrationally drawn to the clandestine Pignon as if he were an island to be discovered. Santini's transformation is even more radical and provides the film with some of its most impeccable humor, as does a certain parade that Franck happens to catch on television, imbuing him with newly-found respect for his father – and further complications need not be mentioned.
The Closet exploits one of the great premises of fiction: that the person so easily pigeonholed might be playing a master role. In past times, the secret involved subterfuge and espionage, but we have moved on from such undeservedly romantic notions of what lies in the heart of men. Now the secret may be sexuality; it may even be, as a metaphor for the wickedness of the twentieth century, that the person in question is actually of another religion, whose revelation would transform his public image irreversibly. A literary critic might underscore the need for any ambitious work to sustain at least two wholly plausible readings to be memorable and worthwhile, yet to the skeptical mind another question surely arises. Is not every human form a mixture of multiple themes, multiple vices, regret and joy, or are we all just simple beasts consigned to simple boxes for future filing? How about the erstwhile cool cats that all too often seem to have peaked during those same dominating years? Filed away in a factory closet that, presumably, no one would ever find.