Friday, November 5, 2010

The Dinner Game (Le dîner de cons) -- mocking others, judging ourselves

Director: Francis Veber, 1998. (PG-13)

Not many have heard of this French film but it was the original source material for this year's Hollywood remake, Dinner for Schmucks. That movie was panned by the critics, drawing a 47% on the tomatometer on but The Dinner Game is both very short (at 80 minutes) and very funny.

The French title translates as "Dinner with Idiots" and that conveys the premise of the film. Pierre (Thierry Lhermitte) is a suave professional in the publishing industry. He is also one of a group of men who host weekly Wednesday dinner parties to which each must bring an "idiot" as their guest. The object of the dinner is to humiliate and mock these idiots and then decide which person brought the best idiot. Of course, most idiots may not even know they are such.

With Wednesday approaching, Pierre still has no idiot. But when his friend meets tax accountant Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret) on a train and Francois insists on showing photos of his matchstick models of famous structures, he has his idiot. Francois could be the "world champion".

When Francois meets Pierre at his home for pre-dinner drinks, he finds Pierre in pain from a bad back. The doctor has warned him to stay at home. His wife, Christine (Alexandra Vandernoot) has told him not to go, and disdains the whole idiots dinner idea. But Francois is eager to tell someone, anyone, about his models of the Eiffel Tower and famous bridges. And the rest of the film takes place in Pierre's apartment as everything falls apart and goes wrong.

Thankfully we don't actually see the dinner. Other events prevent this. However, the concept of mocking others for fun, even if they miss the point of this humiliation, is distinctly disgraceful. Certainly humor is relaxing, and laughter and jokes are fun. But who is the brunt of the jokes? When we put ourselves in the place of the fool, we can laugh with others at ourselves. That is fine because we are not taking ourselves seriously. But laughing at others deliberately seems wrong. The book of Proverbs gives warnings against mockers: "if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer" (Prov. 9:12). Moreover, "The proud and arrogant man -- 'Mocker' is his name; he behaves with overweening pride" (Prov. 21:24). We may mock men without their knowing it, but we cannot fool God: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked" (Gal. 6:7). Such behavior brings his displeasure and likely discipline.

If we set out to humiliate others in this way, we really find ourselves judging them. In fact, who is to say someone is bore? Perhaps he himself is a bore. He is certainly a boor, rude and insensitive. Jesus said, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" (Matt. 7:1). By judging others to be idiots and seeking to humiliate them, we are showing the kinds of people we are, and calling our own character into question.

As events transpire and Christine leaves him, Pierre asks Francois to call his "friend" Juste Leblanc (Francis Huster), Christine's former lover and co-author. As Francois gets into character as a Belgian film producer seeking the rights to Leblanc's book, he gets carried away in this idiocy and shouts excitedly, "I think we got it . . . and for peanuts". He has totally forgotten what he is trying to do. And that epitomizes the fun in this film: the idiocy of relying on an idiot to help make things better. In fact, Francois manages to make things worse, much worse. If it can go wrong, he can make it go wrong, inadvertently.

Yet, in his heart Francois is trying to help. Unlike Pierre, he demonstrates a generous and kind spirit, even if the execution of his kindness fails to match up to the intent. In his own way, Francios gives evidence of several of the fruits of the spirit: "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23). He is a teddy bear, warm and cuddly if alone and boring.

Finally, Francois reveals to Pierre the reason for his model-making. What was a bore and a sign of an idiot, has a raison d'etre. There is more to Francois than meets the eye. This is true for most people. We see their outsides, we hear their stories, we listen to their pet hobbies. We may resonate with them; we may be repelled by them. But until we get below the surface layer, we really don't know what is driving them, why they have these hobbies. Perhaps by listening to them instead of laughing at them we can encourage them to bare their soul. And that may lead to healing . . . for them, for us, maybe even for both.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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