Stars: Patrick Bruel, Valerie Benguigui, Charles Berling, Guillaume de Tonquedec, Judith El Zein and Francois Fabian.
Writer: Matthieu Delaporte, based on his play.
Directors: Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patelliere.
The verbal dynamics of a dinner-party gone very bad are played-out with action-movie intensity in writer Matthieu Delaporte’s adaptation of his own hit 2010 play. Recalling the brio of such chamber-piece melodramas as Edward Albee’s Whos’ Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Yasmina Reza’s Carnage and Ira Levin’s Deathtrap but with a lightness of touch reflecting its origins in great Gallic farce, this compelling if occasionally too boisterous work never quite breaks free from its origins but is a vivid piece of cinema nonetheless.
Topped and tailed with some lucidly over-edited outdoor scenes and a witty voiceover constructed to remind audiences who saw the stage version that this is, in fact, a movie, Delaporte and his co-director Alexandre de La Patelliere spend the other 95% of the film in a single-setting - the lovely apartment of well-to-do middle-class Parisians Vincent (Charles Berling), a feisty intellectual, and Elisabeth (Valerie Benguigui), a public-school teacher. This evening, the married pair have invited their friend, renowned trombonist Claude (Guillaume de Tonquedec), to a dinner party during which Elisabeth’s brother Vincent (a terrific Patrick Bruel) and his girlfriend Anna (Judith El Zein) will announce the name of their soon-to-be-born son.
Established as jokester who walks a fine line in bad taste humour, Vincent announces that the child’s name is also that of a certain Teutonic mass-murderer; not particularly thoughtful, given the hostess’ Jewish heritage and the role her mother, Francoise (Francois Fabian) has played in their upbringing. This jocular miscalculation is the lit fuse that finally sees the evening erupt into a screaming match in which prejudices, family secrets and long-gestating ill-feelings are revealed.
As the good-natured jibes give way to seething temper tantrums, each cast member is given ample opportunity to unleash Angry Acting 101; Bruel and Tonquedec present the most balanced characterisations, whereas Benguigui and, in particular, Berling occasionally take the histrionics to ear-shattering levels. That said, the naturalistic interactions and motivations of all Delaporte’s creations are entirely believable, if clearly bound to their live theatre beginnings; despite the prologue and coda and the best efforts of DP David Ungaro to bring cinematic scope to the apartment setting, What’s in a Name? is essentially a filmed version of the play.
Having long been a writing team (Renaissance, 2006; 22 Bullets, 2010), the debutant directing duo give their actors a lot of frame-space in which to gesticulate, adding to the sense that everyone was still very much of a ‘live-theatre’ mindset (4 of the 5 cast key cast members played their characters during the stage season). The lack of close-ups and meagre use of such stylistic ‘flourishes’ as dolly-shots suggests that Delaporte and Patelliere were both still similarly tied to their work’s beginnings. Which, in this case, may be entirely appropriate; What’s in a Name? exists, soars even, on the precise wordplay of its principles and, in playing to its strengths, ensures it is compulsively watchable.