What "Le Prénom" ("The First Name") accomplished was a miracle: it restored my faith on French comedy.
Indeed, just when I thought that they were forever condemned to rely their success on simplistic and childish plots compensated with star-studded cast, or some more or less abuse of that parodist humor mostly inspired from TV, Alexandre de La Patellière's film reminds us that even in our cynical Internet days, it was possible to make people laugh with delightful dialogues and realistic human interactions, with the perfect cocktail of gentleness and cynicism, something I didn't think was possible since "Le Diner de Cons".
And it's true that "Le Prénom" is really the descendant of Francis Veber's masterpiece and not just on its excellent sophistication that never patronizes the spectator. On the form too, there are similarities worth to be noticed: both movies are based on popular plays, "The Birdcage" was another example of successful adaptation from stage to the big screen. The movie perfectly combines a respect of the unity of time, place and plot, with a delightful premise: a friendly dinner in upper-class Parisian house that turns sour when one of the guest revealed the name he decided to give to his future son, shattering instantly the harmony and friendship between a memorable gallery of characters.
Vincent (Patrick Bruel in a very interesting and nuanced performance) is Vincent, the brother of Babou (Elizabeth) played by the late Valerie Benguigi, a modest teacher married to a literature professor, Pierre, played by Charles Berling. Joining them is a meek, effeminate and non-confrontational musician, Claude, played by Guillaume de Tonquédec and Anna (Judith El Zein) as Vincent's pregnant wife, carrying in her womb the roots of the discord. Five characters, that's enough to set-up one of the funniest comedies of the last years. Both Guillaume de Tonquédec and Valérie Ben Guigui won the César for Best Supporting role, and the only bit of sadness conveyed by the film is Benguigui's untimely passing, at the age of 47.
(Indeed, It's impossible not to think of that sad loss for French Cinéma while watching "Le Prénom" and I'm glad she won the César, as a tribute to an immense talent that will be sadly missed. She left Cinema with a poignant and funny performance that will be remembered in the years to come) Now how about that first-name that will ignite the fire of discord and misunderstanding? Although it's very tempting but I won't give it away, out of respect for the screenplay and because one of the first delights is to play that game with Vincent, when he challenges to guess the name he picked for his son. It's not an unknown name, which makes the exercise even more suspenseful and once you know it, you understand why it was so polemical. I wondered for months what was that was mysterious name and how could it provoke a clash, I'm glad I didn't have a clue till the day I saw the film. And yes, they couldn't have come up with a worse name.
But don't worry, the film isn't centered only on the names' subject, it's just a starter to what will turn into something as chaotic as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" where all the guests will have to say what they truly think and get rid of the whole social hypocrisy. And this is one of the aspects that make "Le Prénom" such a great comedy, it's a clever social commentary on the behavior of French elite, and the way their interactions, their speech mannerism or body language betray their political beliefs and their true feelings about so-called friends.
It's a reminder of the way sometimes, conflicts can have a sane effect by luring us to reveal the most sincere part of ourselves, and what more eloquent than the way we name people we love to speak about us. I, myself, am tired with people in my country, who gave their children name that sound foreign because they know that today, having an Arabic name can be a handicap, for me these people are either accomplice of the system, acknowledging the very hate their people inspire, and be part of it, driven by a form of unconscious cowardice. I could relate to a story like that, and I'm sure I can get excitable when it comes to such subjects.
So, behind the funny surface, "Le Prénom" is an extremely intelligent movie and deep in the way it tackles social interactions, much more when they touch family and friendship. There'll always be someone who'll be taken for what he is not and a simple sentence, one too much, can work like a wake-up call. And just when you think, you pointed your finger on someone's flaw, you realize you're not beyond criticism either, and this is the main lesson of "Le Prénom", it's about understanding each other, and respecting both people's choices and opinions, without being too wrapped up in one's egos.
And at the end, the battle of egos turn into a recognition of each one's plea, and what starts like a comedy end like a great lesson about humility. Yet the film doesn't conclude on a serious note, and the ending is the perfect punch line to it. When it ended, I found every bit of the film most satisfying, tasting like a good wine that thankfully never went too sour. And as I said, as an aspiring screenwriter, I wish I could come up with a film half that good. Of course, I could throw some one-liners here and there, but taken out of their context, they wouldn't have the same effect, much more; they might give clues about that infamous name that started all.
So, please, just watch it, if only to discover what is that mysterious name
but be a good movie fans, good sports, and don't cheat.