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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

DVD Review: What’s In A Name?

What’s In A Name? is a wonderful and surprising film about several friends who get together for dinner, and end up learning a lot about each other and themselves after one of them reveals the name he and his wife have chosen for their son.

The film begins, however, with a man named Jean-Jacques on a motorcycle. The opening narration tells us that “Jean-Jacques is lucky. He isn’t superstitious.” The narrator tells us of the deaths of the French writers for whom are named the streets by which Jean-Jacques must travel. It’s hilarious, intercut with illustrations of those people. It’s delightful in sort of the same way much of Wes Anderson’s work is delightful. I was reminded of The Royal Tenenbaums, particularly.

Jean-Jacques is delivering some pizzas, but knocks on the wrong door. And that’s how we’re introduced to Pierre and Elisabeth. The narrator tells us that Elisabeth Garaud-Larchet (Valerie Benguigui) is a middle school French teacher who directs the school plays. Her husband, Pierre (Charles Berling), is a literature professor. “Corduroy is like his second skin.” When Elisabeth’s mother, Francoise, calls, the voice over tells us a bit about her also: “She has a beautiful alto voice, but she’s a bit talkative.” Claude (Guillaume De Tonquedec) arrives, and we’re told that he is a Libra, and also Libra rising, and that he and Elisabeth have been friends since childhood. And when Vincent (Patrick Bruel) arrives, we learn that he’s Elisabeth’s brother, Pierre’s best friend, and Claude’s childhood friend. A real estate agent, he’s “Merciless but extremely courteous.” He met Anna when they almost collided in their cars. “And soon Anna will be expecting Vincent’s child.”

I know that many people are of the opinion that voice over should not be used in films. And while there is a lot of awful and pointless voice over in movies, it also can be used extremely well. It might seem like an easy way to get across a lot of information about characters, but in this film it’s done in such a creative and humorous way that it’s totally enjoyable. And so when the film gets underway, we do already have a good idea about who these people are. We already like them.

The odd thing, however, is that the first ten or fifteen minutes end up feeling like a different film. All the narration, the quick pace, and the many shots and cutaways in those opening minutes are fun, but once the film gets going, all of that is dispensed with. The film becomes more of a comedic drama, taking place in a single location. So while I enjoy tremendously both the beginning and the bulk of this film, I’m not sure the two quite work together.

The relationships, however, are all quite clear, with conversation flowing naturally and lightly until Elisabeth asks Vincent about Anna’s ultrasound. Vincent looks glum and says, “The good news is it’s a boy, the bad news is he’s dead.” They recoil in shock, and he admits: “I’m putting you on. He’s fine.” I appreciate Vincent’s screwed up sense of humor, and it’s great that it’s established right away.

A little later, the others take turns guessing the name Vincent and Anna have chosen for their child. Vincent gives the hint that it starts with “A,” which immediately has me guessing. Turns out I guessed correctly, sort of.  Vincent says they’re naming their child after the title character in Benjamin Constant’s novel, and this leads to a heated discussion, with all making good points. And when Anna (Judith El Zein) arrives, the conversation regarding the name resumes, much to Vincent’s surprise and delight. But soon other personal issues are brought to the surface. It’s great that the film first took the time to establish that these are people who love each other, for otherwise we might not care as much.

The ending is a little weak, but otherwise this is a completely enjoyable film.

What’s In A Name? was directed by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patelliere, and was released on DVD on June 3, 2014 through First Run Features. The DVD contains no special features. The original French title, by the way, is Le Prénom.

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