Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil), the hero of Francis Veber’s The Closet, is too anonymous to be an Everyman—he’s a Nobodyman. He’s been grinding his life away as an accountant at the same rubber-goods factory for 20 years. He lives alone in an apartment that feels more like a waiting room than a home. He’s a creature of habit, wearing the same blue suit every day, and invariably greeting his coworkers each morning by asking them if they’d like some coffee. (They never do.) He’s too bland to be despised, except perhaps by his ex-wife and son, who have cut him out of their lives. Life has passed Francois over—it couldn’t even be troubled to give him a personality.
So when Francois overhears that he’s about to be fired, it’s the last straw—he’s ready to kill himself. He’s saved, though, by his neighbor Belone (Michel Aumont), a retired corporate psychologist who knows just how to save Francois’ job. Belone plants the rumor at Francois’ company that he’s gay, and overnight everyone sees him in a new light. His bosses, not wanting to offend their biggest client pool (condoms are their biggest product), withdraw the termination. Assuming that his bland exterior must be masking a libertine, Francois’ associates begin projecting their own personalities onto him, especially a homophobic coworker (Gerard Depardieu) who grows increasingly obsessed with him. Eventually, even Francois’ dismissive family gets scent of the rumor, and is forced to take fresh stock of the husband and father they thought they knew. The one person who sees through the “new” Francois is his comely accounting colleague, Mlle. Bertrand (Michele Laroque), and she’s the one that has a front row seat when Francois finally begins to assert himself.
Veber’s direction rarely rises above the functional—only one shot of a disconsolate Depardieu sitting on a garden bench looks like it wasn’t framed for a sitcom. His sense of visual wit is so inexact that the sight of Francois riding on a parade float while wearing a hat that’s a huge condom is more depressing than amusing. (It’s Auteuil the actor, and not Francois the character, that looks miserable.) Veber’s camera wanders over the whimsical machinery that his production team designed for the condom factory without ever giving us a good look at it. The bright blue machines look like giant toys, and with a little more imagination they could’ve had the classic combination of simplicity and corporate soullessness that the assembly lines have in A nous la liberte and Modern Times
Yet for all of his problems as a director, Veber’s script has a genuine sweetness to it, partly because Francois never changes on the outside. Where most comedies would have forced him to wear progressively campier outfits until he’d finally be going to work in drag, Francois never gives up his blue suit. He remains boringly straight on the surface—that is to say, he stays true to himself—and the story never forces him to “prove” his gayness through nelly shrieks or any other degrading shtick. And there are other unexpected (if small) rewards, such as a line of dialogue about a pink sweater that Depardieu’s character delivers after he’s suffered a nervous breakdown—it’s an inanely touching moment.
Daniel Auteuil looks so different from one appearance to the next that it’s fun just trying to connect the guy you’re watching now with the guy you’ve seen in other movies. Here he’s playing a Tony Randall character, but Auteuil has too much self-respect to play him the way that Randall would. His very self-effacingness makes Francois compelling, and such simple actions as hanging up a coat become almost absurdly interesting to watch because his fastidious Francois does everything as a series of steps. Depardieu is almost literally straight-jacketed in his early scenes—his suit looks a couple sizes too small—and ultimately his character doesn’t have enough to do to warrant the casting of a major star. But Michele Laroque is a find, a full-bodied, womanly presence that’s all the more attractive for her maturity. It’s easy to see why Mlle. Bertrand can help chase away Francois’ blues.
– Tom Block