French films ''La Cage Aux Folles'' and ''French Twist'' were originals that were repackaged for Robin Williams

By Steve Daly
September 20, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

”The Birdcage” is a lighter version of earlier films

”This film has been modified from its original version,” reads a disclaimer at the start of every videocassette copy of The Birdcage, last spring’s biggest box office hit. ”It has been formatted to fit your TV.” Has it ever. The ”original” Birdcage is, of course, the far less opulent yet hugely successful 1978 French farce La Cage Aux Folles. Reworking director Edouard Molinaro’s tacky-looking, authentic-feeling portrait of a sturdy gay marriage, director Mike Nichols has strung together a sequin-covered sitcom. Not that there’s anything wrong with manufacturing such a broad-as-Billy Wilder vehicle for Robin Williams, who’s believably understated as Armand, a South Beach drag-club owner, and Nathan Lane, who’s never convincing but often hilarious as Starina (a.k.a. Albert), the nightspot’s main attraction and Armand’s longtime companion. But ”modified” compared with La Cage? More like deboned, pureed, and flat-out reconstituted.

Those craving more authentically Gallic fare might be tempted to check out this week’s other tres gay nuptial comedy, French Twist. After all, it takes place in France, has actual French dialogue, drew 4 million paying French viewers in French theaters, and was written and directed by French comedian Josiane Balasko, who plays a butch lesbian interloper keen on reconfiguring a hetero husband-and-wife household into a pansexual menage. But mon Dieu — who decided to cool down the movie’s steamier plot turns for American audiences? It’s not a remake, but the refreshingly politically incorrect French Twist ends up losing more in the translation than The Birdcage does.

In fact, for all the griping from film purists, The Birdcage nimbly rehashes its filet mignon source material into a perfectly tasty le Big Mac. If you compare it directly with La Cage, what’s mainly missing is a gamy edge. Consider La Cage‘s club owner (Ugo Tognazzi) reacting to the news that his teenage son wants to marry a likewise tender-aged girl. ”Whore,” he calls her — even after he speaks to her on the phone. Let’s face it; this old Frenchman really doesn’t care much for women. In The Birdcage, Dad (Williams) remains much more nobly diplomatic, while Albert only goes so far as to kiddingly call his ”adopted” son’s bride-to-be ”some dormitory slut.” And when Lane’s dizzy hypochondriac, in an argument with his partner, declares, ”Go ahead, hit me — that’s what you wanna do, isn’t it?” we never believe it will happen (he just gets pushed over), while La Cage‘s Michel Serrault brings a clearly sexual frisson to the same defiant request. He ends up with a black eye — and looks as if he both regrets and enjoys it.

Does this cleanup job make The Birdcage a lesser movie? Maybe, but there’s still a place in the world for good hamburgers. And despite the ”modified” label, the film gets such a lavishly colorful home-video transfer, it’s hard not to shrug and say c’est la vie americaine. The outlandishly tropical settings of production designer Bo Welch — a world away from his gigs as Tim Burton’s black-on-black image meister — look even more electrically pastel perfect than they did in theaters.

Keeping the sense of local color intact turns out to be a much bigger problem in French Twist. For one thing, the cropping of the wide-screen image is painfully obvious as the cartoonish principals in this mean-mouthed menage a trois have at it: Whoops, there goes the spitfire housewife (Victoria Abril) out of the frame again, trailed by her lover and her philandering husband (Alain Chabat).

But these video-transfer tics aren’t nearly as annoying as the way Miramax has sanitized French Twist for your protection. The original title, Gazon Maudit, doesn’t appear on screen; who would be offended if the curious tracked down its idiomatic translation — ”accursed lawn,” which is slang for a woman’s private parts? There are also five minutes of the original French cut missing, which Miramax says was removed by the director herself for ”artistic reasons.” Why, though, would Balasko voluntarily soft-pedal her finale, in which the husband seemingly decides to toy with a same-sex relationship just like his wife’s? According to published accounts, shots resolving the question were removed. I’d call that screwing nobody but the viewer. With watered-down ”original” French versions like this, where does one turn to celebrate la difference? The Birdcage: B La Cage aux Folles: B+ French Twist: B-