La Cage aux Folles is a much sharper film than its echo. It is, as dakoopst noted, not a comedy like its American successor, but rather a full-blown social and political satire. Simply put, the movie depicts much sharper divisions in French society than The Birdcage does in American society. Calista Flockhart's Barbara Keeley, prospective wife of Dan Futterman's same-sex-parented Val Goldman is a scion of a vapidly patriotic and Republican senator; Carmen Scarpitta's Louise Charrier, attached to actor Rémi Laurent's sneering Laurent Baldi, comes from an ultraconservative and traditionalist Catholic family closely attached to the ruling political party, the Union des forces morales. It's worth noting that, at the time that the film was made, France was ruled by President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and his conservative Union pour la Démocratie Française. Here, in fact, it is President Berthier who is caught in flagrante delicto not a Congressman: "Une prostitutée," Charrier says astounded. "Mineure. Et de couleur." La Cage aux Folles is occupied by an implicit and funny critique of French conservatism and its hobbyhorses--for instance, told by his daughter that her love Laurent is one of many children he congratulates Laurent's father, the Italian immigrant Renato, for being properly philoprogenitive and calling his a model family--that is completely absent in The Birdcage. Race, along with religion and natalism, is another topic dealt with in the person of Jacob, the flamboyantly gay Martiniquais butler.
This film is far more vicious than its later, tamer American echo. The Birdcage's characters have their edges filed off; La Cage aux Folles' characters are quite willing to wound one another, and bystanders, in pursuit of their goals. Laurent is willing to hurt his adoptive father in order to ensure that the Charriers will accept him; Renato Baldi is quite willing to lie and manipulate; homophobia actually makes a visible entry. Not to knock The Birdcage as a perfectly adequate comedy, but La Cage aux Folles has an enjoyable bite that I didn't expect. The only fault that I can find with the DVD edition that I viewed tonight was that the subtitles were often inadequately translated; but then, that's also one reason why one should be bilingual.