Someday when I open my dream movie theater/bookstore/gun shop/barbecue/liquor emporium in some far Montana glade, it will specialize in ironic double bills. One of the first will be drawn from this day in movie history, on which both "The 13th Warrior," a huge medieval battle saga, and "The Dinner Game," a small French farce, open. The irony is that one is filled with blood, guts, swords and horses and is set a thousand years ago, and the other is about a publisher and an accountant and is set a thousand seconds ago, and they are the same movie.
They are basically studies of the secret tribes of man. They are almost evolutionary, the modern one in a direct line of descent from the ancient model. Ecce homo, they say. Behold man: cool guys and nerds. It's always the same. Some guys got it; some guys don't. Some guys swagger; some guys mince. Some guys squish the juice out of life and enjoy every second; some guys get squished. Some have lunch; some are lunch.
But as both movies argue persuasively, when the chips are down, they need each other.
"Warrior" chronicles the way a cosmopolitan outsider--a nerd to his beholders--penetrates the society of Viking warriors and becomes a key member of their team, despite their contempt for him and his for them. "Game" tells the same story without the blood, the horses, the Vikings or the war.
Pierre Brochant (the slickly handsome Thierry Lhermitte) is a prosperous publisher who lives the good life in Paris. You can tell he's cool: His clothes fit, and many of them are black. He and some other extremely accomplished men have a nasty little game they play on the lessers of the breed: They like to sponsor a dinner party to which each brings a male guest.
What the guests don't know is that they have been chosen on the basis of their lameness, their pathos, their delusions, the totality of their nerdliness. They are the human comedy Writ Large, with a scrotum and sweat glands and bad clothes.
On this day, Pierre chooses especially well. He picks Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), who is piglike, small, hangdog, deluded, lonely and, best of all, has possibly the dumbest hobby in Western Europe: He makes matchstick models. How delicious! How droll! How amusant! How inferior!
Writer-director Francis Veber has worked this line before--the contrast between, and the ultimate commonality of, the strong, dynamic man and the weak, repressed man--possibly most effectively in "Les Comperes" with Gerard Depardieu and Pierre Richard, which was remade lamely by Americans as "Father's Day" with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. But if it's familiar, it's still effective, particularly with farce mechanic Weber orchestrating the escalating chaos.
For even as Pierre feels like a master of the universe, his world is disintegrating: His wife leaves him, one thing leads to another, his friends desert him, and, as he tumbles, the only prop against his collapse turns out to be tubby Villeret.
The key to Veber is his refusal to sentimentalize: Villeret remains agonizingly irritating during the whole affair, and many of his clumsy attempts at help backfire. But in his own way, he turns out to be a surprisingly resilient character, noble if awkward.
And the movie is blessedly short. At 82 minutes, Weber doesn't let anything run on; he keeps people moving in and out of doors like bouncing balls, the plot flying along, the ironic epiphanies mounting up.
It's a small jewel of precision. Look for it now at three Washington area art theaters or soon at a movie theater/bookstore/gun shop/barbecue/liquor emporium near you.
The Dinner Game(82 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5, the Cinema Arts 6 and the Shirlington 7) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo.