Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Delaporte & de La Patellière's LE PRENOM: the European box-office sensation opens in the U.S.

It out-grossed The Avengers in Europe on opening weekend, yet it's actually a very intelligent movie (funny, surprising, moving and more). That's one of the differences between Europe and the U.S. -- culture-wise, at least. That a movie this smart -- LE PRENOM (which officially translates as "The First Name" but is being sold under the less good title of What's in a Name? -- could outdraw a super-hero blockbuster says some-thing about folk who go to movies over there, as opposed to those who attend over here. But as comparisons are odious, let's just stick with the film at hand.

Based upon the legitimate theater piece by Matthieu Delaporte (above, right), who co-wrote and co-directed along with Alexandre de La Patellière (above, left), the movie -- after an odd but funny start which seems, in addition to its humor, designed mostly to disguise the film's theatrical roots -- takes place in the apartment of a happily married couple with two kids who are planning a dinner party to be attended by her brother and his pregnant wife and everybody's best friend since childhood, a confirmed "bachelor" who plays trombone in the local symphony.

The dinner goes on, all right, but just prior to it, the subject of the first name of the upcoming newborn is raised. When that name (the prénom of the title) is unveiled, all hell breaks loose -- in increments that grow funnier and loonier as the evening progresses, leading to the kind of truth-telling among family and friends that so rarely happens and certainly not as hilariously and devastatingly as it does here.

Class, economics, religion, sexual preference and all kinds of other subjects taboo to polite conversation are unleashed, and the half-dozen major performers on view have a field day tearing into them. Everyone shines, but what a pleasure it is to see one of our favorite actors, Charles Berling (above), get the opportunity to be so funny.

Berling plays the self-satisfied hubby of the hostess, played by the late and award-winning Valérie Benguigui, of The Wolberg Family -- who, in a kind of untimely irony regarding that wonderful film, died from breast cancer just this year.

As the wealthy and mostly non-thinking catalyst of the evening, Patrick Bruel (below) has a role he seems born to play and he delivers every inch of it. It's a toss-up, and one of the funnier aspects of the film, which of its two alpha males is the more self-satisfied.

In the role of the the best friend is an actor new to me, though I actually had seen him years ago in films by Kieslowski and Ruiz -- Guillaume de Tonquedec, who brings a precise combination of charm and naive, open-heartedness to his role -- which is probably the best of his career so far and into which he fits like the proverbial glove.

Completing the picture are one of France's most lustrous aging stars, Françoise Fabian, below, who looks as gorgeous as ever as a senior citizen, and Judith El Zein (shown at bottom), properly annoyed and feisty, playing Ms Benguigui's late-to-dinner sister-in-law.

The filmmakers have fun with first names throughout, dropping all last names from the opening credits and giving us some delightful pictures of their cast as kids during the closing credits. Both they and their cast keep the pace moving speedily and friskily, despite a running time of 110 minutes. By film's end, you'll probably agree that this has been as smart and funny a time as you've spent at the movies in quite awhile.

The award-winning film, distributed in the USA via Under the Milky Way, opens this Friday, December 13, here in New York City at the Cinema Village. Elsewhere? Yes: word has just come in that it will play the Arthouse Cinema 502 in Ogden, Utah, from January 17-23 and at Theatre N at Nemours in Wilmington, Delaware, from December 27-29. And if you're not within driving distance of any of these theaters, you can also watch the film on VOD via iTunes. Click here to access the link.

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