WHAT’S IN A NAME? (Le Prenom). Starring Patrick Bruel, Charles Berling, Judith El Zein, Guillaume de Tonquedec, and Valerie Benguigui. Directed by Alexandre de La Patelliere and Matthieu Delaporte. Rated M (Coarse language and sex scenes). 110 min.
This sub-titled, French-Belgian comedy is a film of the play, “Le Prenom”, by the two directors of the film who also wrote it. It was awarded two Cesar Awards in 2012 for Best Supporting Actor (Guillaume de Tonquedec) and Best Supporting Actress (Valerie Benguigui).
Billed as a farce, the film finds its laughter in situations that the characters create for themselves. Farce has plots in which the people involved get caught in circumstances that are compromising. It has definite set rules in which the characters lie to save face, and their lies compound the situation. All works out well in the end, but along the way, moral dignity is usually lost. No country is better than France is creating really good farcical comedy that pays homage to these rules.
After a quick introduction to all the key players, the movie zeroes in on the apartment of a pretentiously up-tight Literature Professor at the Sorbonne, Pierre (Charles Berling), and his disillusioned, primary-school teacher wife, Elisabeth (Valerie Benguigui). The two of them are rushing to prepare dinner for their guests, who include Elisabeth’s brother, Vincent (Patrick Bruel) who is a self-absorbed, glamorous real estate agent, and Elisabeth’s childhood friend, Claude (Guillaume de Tonquedec), who is a sensitive classical trombonist, who everyone secretly perceives as gay. Vincent arrives for dinner, and the four of them wait for Anna (Judith El Zein), Vincent’s pregnant partner. While waiting for Anna, Vincent takes the opportunity to announce the name of the baby he is expecting with her. The choice of name offends everyone, and complications become more intense as the evening progresses.
Vincent satisfies everyone’s curiosity by saying at the start that he has decided to name the baby, “Adolphe”. Following Vincent’s announcement, it is not long before bickering turns to yelling, and relationships start to fracture when the implications of the name, and its effect on everyone, start to develop. Soon everyone is fighting and hurling personal insults at each other, speaking before thinking, and it is not long before someone is goaded insensitively into confessing having had an illicit affair with an unexpected person (which again is characteristic of French farce). In the ensuing debacle, all of the characters reveal and learn things about themselves, and, as the plot twists and turns, emotional truths create insights into love and friendship. It all works out in the end with the happy birth of a girl, but there is much emotional out-pouring on the way through.
De Tonquedec and Benguigui are wonderful as Claude and Elisabeth. Through the arguments and the fights, we come to learn what has happened to each member of the group since childhood, and we are exposed additionally to the social customs and mores of middle-class living. Each member of the group had secrets they didn’t want to share, and dinner together has pushed them all almost “to the point of no return”, and forced true feelings out into the open.
The film has very witty dialogue. Because everything happens in the one place (the apartment of Pierre and Elisabeth), there is a stage-look to the film, and it is obvious that the movie basically presents us with a film version of a play. The scripting is excellent, however, and the characters deliver their lines with great timing. Vincent’s rational defence of his choice of “Adolphe” is comical and provocative at the same time, and the film’s dialogue moves the movie beyond traditional farce to offer a thoughtful exploration of what lies in the meaning of a name, and an analysis of the frustrations that lie deeply embedded in life’s relationships. Among this group, “neutrality doesn’t exist”.
This is a very good French comedy, and it introduces us to five people who populate their roles with finely-tuned performances. It is a tribute to the film’s effectiveness that after all the bickering, fighting, and revelations, the movie manages to leave you with a quiet sense of comic enjoyment that challenges you thoughtfully as well.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out July 25th 2013.