The True Fool: Just Desserts and Power Inversions in The Dinner Game
by Jocelyn Streid
Le Diner de Cons (1998) is a difficult movie to watch, and not because we don’t all speak French. It begins with a cringe-worthy premise: a group of wealthy Parisian book publishers – if these aren’t the patricians, then I don’t know who is – invite “idiots” for dinner every Wednesday, egg them on in conversation, and then ridicule them afterward. Their cruelty is hard enough to stomach, but as the plot develops and disaster after disaster unfolds, the viewer feels a little like a witness to a slow-motion train wreck. Although the film does not actually present us any traditional dinner scenes, Le Diner de Cons still uses both the absence of food and the presence of unexpected food to demonstrate a shift in power from the host to the guest.
Pierre, the antihero of the film, is a book publisher whose wealth is outdone only by his smugness. He invites a bumbling civil servant named Pignon to his dinner for schmucks. Pignon’s claim to fame? He constructs elaborate models of landmarks out of matchsticks and quizzes hapless strangers on how many hours it took to make them. Yet the plot takes a turn when Pierre throws out his back, the dinner never happens, and Pignon spends the evening tending to him. Pierre then receives a phone call from his wife telling him that she’s left him, and he suddenly finds himself reliant upon the wholly incompetent Pignon in his desperate attempts to win back his wife. By film’s end, Pignon learns about the true nature of the dinner invitation and shows Pierre incredible compassion in spite of his cruelty. He calls Pierre’s wife and implores that she return to her husband because “no one, not even he, deserves that kind of sadness.”
For a movie called The Dinner Game, the film contains strikingly little food. The dinner that we’re promised in the very beginning of the film never happens. In fact, we actually witness the inverse. The characters do not sit down to a decadent meal served by a well-trained wait staff; instead, Pignon hastily cooks up an omelet to be eaten on a card table. Similarly, Pierre’s injured back denies him of the opportunity to ridicule Pignon with his friends; instead, Pignon’s various mishaps actually make a fool out of Pierre – in the space of an hour or so, Pignon unwittingly manages to tell Pierre’s wife that her husband has been keeping a mistress, reveal to the mistress that Pierre thinks her crazy, and invite a tax collector into Pierre’s opulent home, who soon finds Pierre guilty of tax fraud. The movie, then, provides us with a different sort of game: a movie called The Dinner Game is actually about the absence of a dinner. Unmoored from the traditional host-guest relationship that a feast would necessitate, the guest unintentionally assumes power as Pignon’s mistakes humiliate Pierre time and time again.
The attached still captures the inversion of the host-guest relationship and the absence of a traditional meal. The scene presents us with two figures, one on either side of the screen. Yet instead of meeting at the table as mutual companions, the still defines them by their difference. One character is speaking, eyes wide-open, hand poised above the table in a purposeful gesture. He holds a telephone, wielding his influence over the outside world without ever leaving the table. Everything about his demeanor suggests that he is the one with the power – he even wears a suit. In contrast, the other man has closed himself off from the outside world, covering his eyes with one hand and hiding the other under the table. He is the powerless one in this scene, even wearing a loose-fitting pajama top unlike his well-dressed counterpart. The still itself gives him less space; the curtain in the background divides the shot into two, with the host given very little room. Shoved off to the side, he sits at the corner of the table. Unlike Pignon, he sits away from the table, unengaged in the shared table space.
Le Diner de Cons, however, constructs a moral system in which Pierre deserves all that unfolds. As audience members, we condemn him from the beginning for his devotion to the dinner for idiots. Our knee-jerk disgust at the game’s premise reveals the value we place upon hospitality and food. When Pierre and his cohort transform the dinner table into a place of cruelty rather than communion and betrayal rather than intimacy, he violates the sacred space of the shared meal. No wonder his wife walks out on him in a huff; like us, she cannot believe her husband could so extensively exploit others for entertainment.
Yet Pierre is a book publisher; his line of work consists of exhibiting others for public consumption. The Dinner Game, then, plays with the notion of display. Unlike the traditional French dinner, it is the guest rather than the food on display at these meals. Consequently, Le Diner de Cons never dwells on food; there is not one close-up of a meal in the entire film. In the still, the table occupies little of the shot. The wine, bread, and omelet sit at the bottom of the frame, almost blending in with the whites, yellows, and blacks of the background. The camera focuses instead on the characters around the table; the earnest Pignon takes over one section of the screen, the exasperated Pierre the other.
Yet although food might not dominate any shot, the little food that exists in the film plays an important symbolic role. Though Pierre and Pignon skip their scheduled dinner, they must prepare a meal for the tax auditor en route to the apartment in response to Pignon’s accidental invitation. Pignon volunteers to cook, abandoning his place as a guest. His initiative already prefigures the transfer of power that emerges in the film’s resolution; control over the meal signifies control over the situation, and when Pignon enters the kitchen, he usurps Pierre in the role of host.
Though Pignon might have expected to dine on fois grois or coq au vin at Pierre’s dinner, he prepares a humble omelet for their unexpected guest. It only takes one bite for the tax collector’s eyes to roll with pleasure. He sits back, smiles, and sighs, “Pignon, you’ve done it again.” The secret, Pignon explains, is a handful of herbs and just a touch of beer. The film thus plays a trick on us; though Pierre may be the one with the ornate apartment and rare artwork, it is Pignon who shoes true culinary sophistication. He transforms beer and eggs – plebian ingredients, especially in France – into a gustatory delight. By asserting his savvy in the preparation of a meal, Pignon hints at the larger lesson of the film: the plebeians deserve respect, too. It’s not surprising, then, that in the screenshot we see that the tax collector, who has left the table, has laid the silverware off the right side of the plate, a convention used at formal dinners to signify the completion of a course. The subtle gesture indicates that like the meals served at the fanciest of French restaurants, these eggs call for all the formalities of deferential dining.
The wine plays an important role as well – this is a French film, after all. In preparation for the tax collector, Pierre brings out the only wine he has, an exquisite bottle only the wealthy can afford. When they realize that wine may rightly cause the tax collector to suspect that Pierre has great wealth he has hid from the French government, Pierre desperately attempts to pollute the wine with vinegar he snatches from the kitchen. “A wino’s delight,” he declares, passing a glass around to test it. Yet Pignon and Pierre discover that the vinegar has actually improved the taste of the wine, lending it a more robust body and flavor. It has become, in short, a fuller, more complete, and altogether more satisfying drink. Pierre had dismissed the possibility; how could common table vinegar hold a candle to the most exclusive of French wines? Similarly, he had also failed to show any respect to Pignon, failing to believe a common civil servant had anything to offer him but entertainment. He soon learns, though, that Pignon demonstrates integrity, empathy, and loyalty beyond his own capacity; the wine’s fall from grace actually enhances it, and Pignon’s witless innocence actually renders him a better person than Pierre could ever hope to be. In the screenshot, the improved wine sits squarely between the two individuals at the center of the frame, a reminder of their difference and a symbol of Pierre’s impending transformation.
Le Diner de Cons ends in moral victory; Pignon’s display of valiant selflessness humbles the humiliated Pierre. Forced to contend with his own cold-heartedness in contrast to Pignon’s complete, albeit bumbling, goodness, Pierre admits his own wrongdoing. In an unexpected dinner for idiots, he has learned who at the table is the true fool.