After the first minutes of La Cage dorée, there's a really strong sense that you're settling in for a rather old-fashioned comedy of errors such as those that made the delights of middle-brow theater-goers of the Parisian boulevards in the 1950s and 1960s. And, yes, there is no denying that part of what made this debut feature by Franco-Portuguese helmer Ruben Alves such a success in France is precisely that throwback to a perfectly decent, harmless, old-fashioned night out with the missus. Yet, for all the apparent ease with which Mr. Alves redeploys the bourgeois comforts and time-honoured, time-saving stereotypes of boulevard comedy, there is something else at work here as well. This tale of the cohabitation between a family of Portuguese immigrants in Paris and their French employers doesn't so much revel in those stereotypes as, in a slow-burn manner, uses them and the well-oiled comedy mechanics to ask thoughtful questions about them and why they exist.

     The starting point is the unexpected inheritance that falls in the lap of Maria and José Ribeiro (Rita Blanco and Joaquim de Almeida), long-time immigrants who work respectively as the inestimable concierge of a Paris apartment building and as a construction foreman-cum-all-around-handyman. The death of José's estranged brother means the family estate is now his, but only if they will move back to Portugal to run it - a tricky subject as their children, twenty-something Paula (Barbara Cabrita) and teenager Pedro (Alex Alves Pereira), are more French than Portuguese, and Maria's sister Lourdes (Jacqueline Corado da Silva) is relying on her to start a food business of their own. The couple decides to keep the news to themselves while they think the matter through, but the papers are inadvertently seen by Lourdes, and soon the inheritance becomes the neighborhood's worst kept secret, with both José's boss (Roland Giraud) and the condo owners realising they won't manage without the Ribeiros.

     The film's humour thus plays in two separate levels. First is the surface comedy of errors between the couple and their surroundings, using the traditional structure of innuendos, misunderstandings and obfuscation. On a second layer, though, Mr. Alves and his co-writers play up an astute look at the stereotypes of both the hard-scrabble, hard-working Portuguese immigrant in France and of the elegant, effete French bourgeoisie. He suggests that the communities themselves reinforce those stereotypes, even if unwittingly: the indecision of the Ribeiros between striking out for themselves without any guarantee of success or staying in a comfort zone with a guaranteed future is a typically Portuguese character trait; the younger generations' discomfort with and refusal of the immigrant label is typical of desiring to create an identity of their own.

     As for the French, their exquisite politeness seems to mask the fact that serious things tend to go unspoken or unapproached for fear of offending or of being misinterpreted, thus reinforcing the stereotypes from both sides. La Cage dorée is also pretty smart in the way it underlines just how much these identity clichés are, for good or bad, grounded on fact, and the binational cast has a ball with the characters by both playing up that stereotype and subverting it by paying attention to what makes each of them tick and how the circumstances conspire to make them look differently at their immigrant condition. Even if for most of them these performances are hardly a stretch, their comfort with the characters helps in making them relatable - especially Ms. Blanco, who has form in these working-class mother types, and Chantal Lauby, playing with a wondrously ditzy sense of timing the wife of José's construction boss.

     For all that, the strength of La Cage dorée lies more in its performances and its script than in its handling; Mr. Alves' work is more functional than inspired, illustrative rather than stylistic, though he shows a firm hand with the film's tempo and speed (bringing it in at 90 minutes flat) and a good attention to performances. It's a charming, amiable comedy, much less obvious than it seems at first, even though it will probably not travel much outside Portuguese communities around the world.

Cast: Rita Blanco, Joaquim de Almeida, Roland Giraud, Chantal Lauby, Barbara Cabrita, Lannick Gautry, Maria Vieira, Jacqueline Corado da Silva, Jean-Pierre Martins, Nicole Croisille, Alex Alves Pereira, Alice Isaaz
Director: Ruben Alves
Screenplay: Mr. Alves, Jean-André Yerles, Hugo Gélin, from a story by Mr. Alves and Luc-Olivier Veuvé
Cinematography: André Szankowski  (colour)
Music: Rodrigo Leão
Designer: Maamar Ech-Cheikh
Costumes: Isabelle Mathieu
Editor: Nassim Gordji Tehrani
Producers: Danièle Delorme, Mr. Gélin, Laetitia Galitzine  (Zazi Films, Pathé Production, TF1 Films Production in association with Cinémage 7 and Hoche Image)
France, 2012, 91 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, July 18th 2013


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