The Guest



PARIS -- So similar are the basic ingredients of Laurent Bouhnik's "The Guest" to those of Francis Veber's 1998 smash hit "The Dinner Game" that this latest exercise in misanthropic farce might as well have been called "The Dinner Game: Second Helping." There is the same setup (a dinner to which an outsider has been invited), the same source (a successful stage play) and the same pleasure in humiliation. Even one of the stars is the same.

But will the result be the same? In Veber's case, the result was 9 million tickets sold in France alone and $4 million in U.S. boxoffice. Because gastronomic comparisons are inevitable, the verdict must be that Bouhnik's mayonnaise has not quite taken. Or that the souffle has only partly risen to the occasion. Audiences who do not require anything too substantial nor mind a slightly acid taste might find the fare reasonably palatable.

After three years of unemployment, packaging executive Gerard (Daniel Auteuil) is offered a foreign posting in Indonesia. To clinch the deal, he is persuaded to invite the boss (Hippolyte Girardot) to dinner. His wife, Colette (Valerie Lemercier), who has no culinary or indeed any other skills, panics and allows their upstairs neighbor Alexandre (Thierry Lhermitte), a communications guru, to advise them on what to wear, how to decorate, how to greet a guest and how generally to create a favorable impression with a new employer.

Because Gerard and Colette are wholly deficient when it comes to socializing and have atrocious taste in anything to do with art or fashion, Alexandre -- an unbearable know-it-all -- has his work cut out. He knocks them into the best shape he can by organizing a practice session in which he plays the role of the boss to the hapless Gerard.

On the fateful evening, the boss arrives bearing a bouquet of flowers that, because Gerard has ordered flowers from the local florists, gives rise to all sorts of identity confusion. Alexandre, meanwhile, is receiving the unwelcome attention of Sophia (Mar Sodupe), the attractive young concierge with whom he had earlier enjoyed a one-night stand.

This is all very Gallic and farcical enough to pass muster. As in the Veber movie, much of the humor depends on social and cultural snobbery. Gerard's idea of a good time is an evening spent with his train set, which occupies every spare space in the apartment. Meanwhile, for Colette, high culture means Pavarotti singing in a football stadium.

As a result, none of the characters is particularly appealing, and the movie's main selling point is its encouragement to audiences to feel superior to its lumpen middle-class protagonists. There are enough decent jokes to enable them to do this, though Bouhnik and screenwriter David Pharao (adapting his own play) lack Veber's sharpness and sardonic wit.

No film featuring Auteuil and Lemercier can be anything less than watchable (though both actors might have been better employed elsewhere). Lhermitte, who starred as the snobbish host in "Dinner Game," can play this kind of role in his sleep.

The decision by the distributors to release the movie without a press screening suggests a lack of confidence in its reception by the critics. But then, the pundits were pretty sniffy about "Dinner Game" too.

EuropaCorp, TF1 Films Prods.
Director: Laurent Bouhnik
Screenwriter: David Pharao
Producers: Maurice Illouz, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam
Director of photography: Jean-Paul Agostini
Production designer: Jacques Bufnoir
Costume designer: Joana George-Rossi
Editors: Frederic Thoraval, Herve de Luze
Gerard: Daniel Auteuil
Colette: Valerie Lemercier
Alexandre: Thierry Lhermitte
Pontignac: Hippolyte Girardot
Bonnot: Artus de Penguern
Fournier: Pascale Denizane
Sophia: Mar Sodupe
Running time -- 82 minutes
No MPAA rating