With Christmas fast approaching, many of us are dreading dinner with the family. Most of the time there will be huge smiles and small talk, and everyone will leave without having said anything that’s really on their minds. Sometimes we secretly wish for the cathartic release that would come with spouting everything that you want to say to that one cousin. You know the one.
The comedic French film What’s In A Name? takes this premise and runs with it. The film, at the surface, is about a simple dinner between family and friends. College professor Pierre (Charles Berling) and his teacher wife Élisabeth (Valérie Benguigui) play host to close family friend Claude (Guillaume de Tonquedec), a classic trombonist. Joining them is Élisabeth’s brother Vincent (Patrick Bruel), a brash real estate agent, as well as his wife Anna (Judith El Zein) who is expecting.
Tensions regarding infidelity, love, and sexuality all come to the surface after an argument breaks out when Vincent tells the group the name of their unborn child. The atmosphere turns from “you just got to your grandpa’s house and are talking about the weather” to “your racist uncle had too many drinks and stuff has started to get weird” in a matter of minutes, and not even Vincent’s array of jokes, both harmful and innocent, can save it.
The film was adopted from a 2010 play with four out of the five same actors, and it does nothing to hide it. Aside from a few exterior shots and short scenes introducing the characters in their environments, the film takes place entirely in Pierre and Élisabeth’s cluttered apartment. Everything from the pictures on the walls and the books on the shelves help provide some additional context to let the viewer in on the thirty years of friendship this family shares.
The brilliant acting is what takes this film’s tired premise and turns it into something great. Everyone has their own drama that they end up bringing to the forefront. While the acting from all five of the house guests is good, Vincent and Élisabeth are especially great. Vincent delivers a monologue about why he chose his son’s name, and while it is completely insane and unbelievable, you can’t help but have a smile on your face the whole time because he’s just so damn good at it.
Where the film really shines is where both the players and the discussion is brutally honest, and nobody does it better than Élisabeth. Benguigui oozes emotion as soon as she starts to feel comfortable enough to let the others know that she is not happy, and has plenty to get off of her chest. Every word she utters, especially to Pierre, is like a dagger.
A decent chunk of the humor in What’s In A Name? will go over your head if don’t have a wealth of knowledge of classic Philosophy or French literature, and there are jokes about wine and food that will not play as well for American audiences. But when the humor hits, it hits hard. You will often find yourself laughing out loud at something as simple as the raise of an eyebrow after an extended monologue. Don’t let the idea of listening to a bunch of somewhat drunk forty-something upper class French people put you off of what is actually a well-crafted, wonderfully acted film.