It’s a stereotype that the French are more cultured than Americans, but obviously that’s a hard claim to either prove or disprove. There are any number of examples that could be used to show it either way, but here’s evidence that, as far as I can tell, is incontrovertible:
What’s in a Name?, a drama-comedy completely devoid of action that centers around a really uncomfortable dinner party, is one of the biggest blockbusters in France’s history. It outsold The Avengers on opening weekend.
Your move, America.
What’s in a Name? (Le Prénom)
Directors: Alexandre de La Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte
Release Date: December 13, 2013 (Theatrical and iTunes)
Although it seems to be billed that way, it’s disingenuous to define What’s in a Name? as a comedy. Sure, it’s funny, especially at the bookends, but the bulk of the film is serious, as the characters reveal aspects of their own and each others’ personalities, and rarely in a pleasant context. The ensemble is one big family: Pierre and Babu, a college professor and schoolteacher respectively, are married and host the big dinner party that is the film’s setting; Claude is Babu’s best friend ever since they were children; Vincent is Babu’s brother and Pierre’s best friend; Anna is Vincent’s wife, the newest addition to the group, and she is pregnant with his child. So it’s a weirdly tight-knit group, and there are not a lot of secrets between them. Of course, there are still some, but not for long.
At the party, before Anna has arrived, Vincent announces that his child is a boy and lets everyone else guess. Eventually, it comes out: the name will be Adolphe (pronounced Adolf). Of course, this leads to a massive fight, as everyone tells Vincent that he can’t doom his son to a life in the footsteps of die Führer, a legitimate point, but Vincent’s semi-sarcastic responses only make things worse. Once Anna arrives, things go downhill fast. One misplaced comment after another after another leads a wonderfully tight-knit group down a very dark path.
But it’s an interesting path to follow. Because the film is essentially a 90 minute conversation with little bits on either side, there is plenty of time for each of the characters to really develop in interesting ways. The character that is developed the least is, as could be expected, Anna, the newest member of the group and the one who has the fewest connections. Pierre, Claude, Vincent, and Babu have decades of history together, and some key moments come bubbling to the service. But they don’t come up without context, and each one is explained sufficiently to give it suitable weight. Sometimes it’s something small, but in a couple of cases the revelations are huge, and even more than the revelations themselves, the reactions change the way characters come across in an instant.
There’s something inherently odd to a foreigner about a film that is so… French. I’m not really up on French culture, which made it difficult to follow at times. Allusions were thrown out that I assume the intended audience would get but that went entirely over my head. It wasn’t enoguh to be a serious problem, but it definitely made me feel like an ignorant American at times. And speaking of being an ignorant American: almost every single name thrown out during the guessing-game seemed silly to me, but they were said with such earnestness that I was struck with a sense of wonder. Also, one of the characters is named Babu. Babu! It’s one letter away from “Baboon” (although not in French). I’m pretty sure it’s short for something, but that’s just a dumb name. As a term of endearment? Please.
But the oddest thing about the film is the inconsistency of its presentation. The frenetic opening, reminiscent of Amélie, is radically unlike the film itself. It starts with rapid introductions of each character, filled with digressions and quick cuts of irrelevant imagery that are interesting and silly, but it sets a false precedent. Following this weirdly omniscient opening (which doesn’t really make sense in the context of the film, but whatever), the narrator (Vincent) arrives on the scene and suddenly things become much more static. In fact, almost everything from then on takes place in Pierre and Babu’s living room, with a little bit of time spent in the dining room beside it. Aside from a two short series of quick-cuts about three-quarters of the way through film and a return to narration at the end, it’s just people in a room talking.
And this makes sense, because it’s based on a play that likely doesn’t leave the house setting, but the existence of this entirely different set of cinematic rules makes it seem like the filmmakers were dissatisfied with their own creation. It’s odd, because it’s the same pair that wrote the play. Perhaps if that random set of quick-cuts didn’t exist it would be more justifiable, and the pre-and post-dinner scenes could have been just been different because this is a movie and I guess it needs to have something more movie-ish about it to justify its adaptation. There are one or two other quick flashbacks, but they don’t have the same sort of impact, so it really feels as though they tried it once and then gave up on it… but they tried it near the end, which is just weird. There were so many other moments that could have cut to the past but never did, and there’s no reason why not. It just seems arbitrary.
But even though it starts and ends the film, it’s not hard to ignore these bits of weirdness and just think of the film as a well-written and well-acted character study about these four people who have known each other basically forever and a fifth person who is about to play a major role in that dynamic. The theatrical roots are clear, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Yes, in many ways this really is just a filmed version of a play, and it would probably be a better play than movie, but it’s not like I was going to go to France and see a production of a show in a language I don’t understand. And it’s not like they could really make an English version without some massive conceptual changes, because as I said it is very French.
The only way anyone outside or France gets to see this story of these people talking in a living room is through this film, and it’s a story I’m glad I got to experience.