The French film industry maintains a long tradition of cinematic excellence, continuing to produce remarkable and influential films. Many of the best are honoured with that most wretched and base of accolades – the Hollywood remake. French comedies in particular, seem more susceptible to this Hollywood makeover, with classics such as ‘Les Compères’ (remade as Father’s Day), ‘Les Fugitifs’ (remade as Three Fugitives) and ‘Trois Hommes et un Couffin’ (Three Men and a Baby) all suffering a humour extraction at the hands of soulless Hollywood corporations.
Thankfully, ‘The Dinner Game’ (‘Le Diner de Cons’), the latest film from French writer/director Francis Veber (‘Les Compères’, ‘Les Fugitifs’ and ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ remade by Hollywood as ‘The Birdcage’), has yet to suffer this fate. This lightweight comedy, one of France’s highest-grossing films to date, was nominated for six 1999 Cesar Awards, winning Best Actor (Jacques Villeret), Best Supporting Actor (Daniel Prevost) and a Best Screenplay for Verber. It’s easy to see why.
The premise is mean-spirited to say the least. A group of rich, successful professionals meet once a week for a dinner, with each participant also inviting an “idiot”. He who supplies the most idiotic guest of all is declared the winner. While each participant enjoys a good laugh, the idiots aren’t in on the joke.
For this week’s dinner, successful book publisher Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lehrmitte) is sure he has found the champion of all idiots: François Pignon (Villeret), a humble accountant from the Tax Office. Pignon occupies his free time creating miniature replications of engineering marvels out of matchsticks.
Unsuspicious of any hidden motive and awe-struck by his invitation, Pignon arrives at Brochant's apartment for a pre-dinner drink hoping to discuss a possible book on his works. He arrives in time to find his host bent-double from a sore back and abandoned by his wife. Refusing to leave his new-found friend in such a vulnerable state, Pignon assists with both his back and his marital problems, screwing up everything with which he gets involved.
Once the premise is established and the characters are brought together, the laughs come thick and fast. Veber is well known for drawing comical effects from the coupling of dissimilar characters; characters thrown together by unlucky or inescapable circumstance. Similarly, ‘The Dinner Game’ makes use of this analogy.
The writing is clever and the comedy sharp - this is character-based humour at its best. Verber’s direction is also keen, keeping the plot constantly accelerating, and constantly building the laughs back upon themselves. The pace doesn’t let up for a second. He also extracts superb comedic performances from his actors. Lhermitte is the consummate straight man (or in this case yuppie) around whom the hilarity swirls. Villeret brings a surprising depth to the character of Pignon. Devastated since his wife left him some two years ago, Pignon, like all the classic clowns, is smiling on the outside and crying on the inside. Round and frizzy-haired, he resembles all Three Stooges at the same time. The other delight is Daniel Prevost playing Pignon’s friend Cheval the hawk-eyed tax auditor. Arriving in the last third of the film, he steals the remainder of the scenes.
This is a light comedy, but thematically Verber still has something to say. Musing on the subjective nature of stupidity he asks ‘who are the real idiots?’ The publisher Brochant is one of a self-satisfied class with nothing to talk about but money and golf. Pignon, like the rest of the so-called idiots, is not an imbecile. He is simply an eccentric man of average intelligence who’s passionate about his hobbies. We are encouraged to laugh at the bumbling Francois for most of the movie, and yet admire him for his heart-on-the-sleeve humanity, a quality Pierre so notably lacks.
Verber peppers what would normally have been an all-too-obvious theme with a lavish amount of irony; making it clear that Francois, for all his humanity, really is a buffoon. Despite his good intentions, nothing he does seems to go as planned.
It is with great sorrow that I must inform you that Madman/AV Channel have only provided a full-frame, non-anamorphic transfer of ‘The Dinner Game’. What a crying shame for such a great film and for an otherwise superb transfer. The colours are brilliant, with fantastic black level and shadow depth. The transfer is very clear and sharp and it is completely devoid of artefacts film or digital. All in all, it comes very close to reference quality; spoiled only by the odd instance of aliasing due to the sharpness.
Despite the outstanding quality of the transfer, with a region 1 release sporting a widescreen (2.35:1) anamorphic transfer, seemingly this region 4 disc just cannot compete. I hazard to say, but those in charge of this R4 release seem to be the real cons (idiots) here.
Two language tracks are supplied, French Dolby 2.0 and English Dolby 2.0, with each provided on a separate side of the dual-sided disc. At all times, in both English and French, the dialogue is clear. As usual the film is much better viewed in its original language, but for those with an aversion to subtitles the English dub is a reasonable compromise (all be it with American voices). As expected, the comedy suffers from the absence of original performances. The English version provides no subtitles, and the English subtitles provided with the French version cannot be removed.
With most of the plot taking place in the quiet opulence of a Paris apartment, and this being a dialogue-centric film, there is little use of ambient noise – the sound stage is restricted firmly to the front. Suffice to say, the subwoofer definitely has the night off. All in all, the soundtrack is unremarkable and provides a reasonable compliment to the film.