What’s In A Name? ** (out of five)
There’s been a particular type of play around for a long time: it involves (usually) a couple of couples, usually affluent or academic in some way, who, due to booze or simply some comment best left unsaid, begin to reveal more and more about how they all actually feel about each other, and, by the end of the night, destroy their relationships, as lovers, friends, whatever, simply by speaking too much of the truth. The earliest one that springs to mind is J.B. Priestley’s Dangerous Corner (1932); the best of all is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962); the most recent that was a worldwide success was Yasmina Reza’s Le Dieu du Carnage / God of Carnage (2008). All have been turned into films.
What’s In A Name? (Le Prénom) was also a play and very much follows the template set by its antecedents. The trouble is, it’s not nearly as good, and somehow seems so much… stagier. It tries to belie its stage origins with a prologue that leaps around as much as possible, from location to location and character to character. Then a couple of friends start arriving at a Parisian apartment for dinner, and… a third-rate God of Carnage plays out, but, rather than that film version’s crisp eighty minutes (called Carnage and directed by Roman Polanski), this one yells at us for nearly two full hours.
And yell it does. I have rarely heard five people scream at each other so much in a movie. There are supposedly two kids sleeping in the other room (of a small Parisian apartment) and unfortunately the movie keeps drawing our attention to this absurdity, by constantly having characters saying “Shh, you’ll wake the children.” It’s like having a character from The Shawshank Redemption say, “But how are we gonna get that poster back on the wall once we’re on the other side?” If you don’t remind us of it we might let you get away with it.
Four of the five characters are really unlikeable, and the effect is of being trapped in a small place with five hideous people yelling at you – it’s crushing, oppressive and claustrophobic. To the film’s credit, there are some genuine laugh-out loud moments, and the acting is never less than highly committed and believable. But it’s a grueling hundred and nine minutes. I suspect it was better on stage, and better left there.