Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 13, 2012 10:08 am 
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It's all just talk, but such good talk

In What’s in a Name?/Le Prénom, an adept entertainment that’s all talk in a French drawing room, four people gather to talk and eat and later are joined by a fifth. What happens is that they are provoked, first by a discussion of the naming of a child, then by revelations about a love affair several key players did not know of, involving someone very close. Though feelings get pretty intense, none of this really matters very much. But the reason why you’d want to watch this movie is to enjoy, with close-ups, a really well-written, acted, and directed example of Gallic theater. It’s all in the dialogue, the adeptness of the acting (four out of the five are the original stage cast), the deft sense of pacing both in the writing and the performances. These people really are at the top of their game. And that includes the film (and original play) directors, Mathieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière.

This is much the same kind of job Roman Polanski was doing in Carnage, his accomplished filmed version of Yasmina Reza's Le Dieu du carnage, except these are people who have known each other since childhood, or thought they did. That presumably explains the extent of the led-pulling about the baby-naming, though the mistake about someone’s sexuality and involvement with someone near and dear may seem a bit far fetched. Remember, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about twists and turns and surprises and well-delivered speeches.

The film begins energetically with a Jeunet-esque set of thumbnail intros with short scenes, accompanied by tongue-in-cheek voiceover, showing who the people are. From then on we are in the comfy Paris flat of a popular Sorbonne professor, Pierre (Charles Berling, not in the stage cast), as he and his schoolteacher wife Elisabeth (Valérie Benguigui) get ready for two guests. These are Elisabeth’s highly successful (and right wing) real estate agent brother Vincent (the great actor singer-songwriter Patrick Bruel) and their friend Charles (Guillaume de Toquedec), a classical trombonist who plays with a French radio orchestra.

Vincent’s wife, who’s to arrive later, is expecting. It’s to be a boy. And the name Vincent proposes is a long, long, wry, provocative joke. The discussion of names this occasions is lively and funny, then violent and incredulous, rich in teasing references to history, politics, and culture. It’s not an accident that Vincent’s sister and in-law are on the left, and it’s relevant that some family members (and one of the key actors) have Jewish blood, i.e. Patrick Bruel (an Algerian Jew) and the character of Elizabeth’s mother Françoise (Françoise Fabian), who is designated as Jewish. More than that we can’t reveal. What one can definitely say is that it’s all because this is pure contrivance and so over-the-top that it’s so enjoyable to watch worked out. The arrival of Vincent’s significant other Anna (Judith El Zein) comes when everyone is on edge, and brings things to a head.

And after Vincent has attempted with limited success to apologize, attention turns to Charles, who despite being everybody’s but Anna’s friend since childhood, they seem not to have known much about. He has been agreeable to everyone, and understood my no one. This second story line seems less engaging than the first. It relies too much on information brought in from nowhere, and on a sixth character who never actually appears till a tacked-on final sequence of the childbirth, which offers another cute surprise.

In a way this is better than Polanski’s (or Reza’s) filmed drawing-room drama. It doesn’t strive so simplistically for significance. It’s about things that matter – child-naming, love, friendship, conventions, prejudices – but it never forgets that it’s playing a dramatic game. Its object is to make the time pass both provocatively and enjoyably. The filmmakers, of course, don’t attampt to “open up” the play (Polanski didn’t either). Neither play goes really deep. For a similar structure that really does, you’ll want to go back to Edward Albee’s classic nightmare evening, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

What’s in a Name?/Le Prénom came out in Paris around the same time as the Marvel Avengers film in France, as did The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in America. Both are examples that there’s more to life than tights and superpowers. And Le Prénom has done pretty well with both the public and the critics (Allociné: press 3.2, public 4.0) coming in second for box office returns that week. But Avengers did better (Allociné: press 4.0, public 4.3). In the US according to Metacritic Avengers rated a 69, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a 62.

Originally screened for this review at UGC Danton, Paris, May 13, 2012. What's in a Name?, 109 mins., directed bu Alexandre de la Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte, in French with English subtitles, went into limited US release December 13, 2013.

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