Elevate Difference

Le Code a Changé

The French comedy of manners conjures up for me, an Anglophone, a bitchy Restoration drama rather than Molière. Jean Renoir’s heavy 1939 film The Rules of the Game, the iconic update of the genre, greatly dilutes the comic elements. Now, Le Code a Changé (Change of Plans) offers a lighter brew with only a dash of melancholy. The aristocracy is replaced by the bourgeoisie, the country house and servants disappear as a more modest yet comfortable life appears, a weekend becomes a dinner party, and women (and men) have real jobs. Nobody gets murdered, though there is an “accident” and a death from cancer. Importantly, the central characters—and there are quite a few of them—emerge relatively unscathed, as do the “rules” underlying the genre. In short, as director Danièle Thompson wished, I went away happy.

Because I tend to upend rules rather than deftly observing them, life has taken me, thankfully, to almost as few dinner parties as on full-fledged dates. This film might change my mind, since this dinner party includes a surreptitious kiss by the bathroom door rather than a strained date. A dinner has functioned before as a plot device for getting things moving (think David Hare’s Wetherby). In the current film, the characters knew each other at school and do not roll around on a stair landing, at least not on camera. Here, the dinner sets off quite a display of romantic fireworks, though miraculously only one divorce.

ML, a high-powered divorce lawyer, has people over partly to show off her new kitchen. Six of her guests are married couples, and her sister and the sister’s older co-worker are another, though ML doesn’t know it. Besides the kitchen designer, the other single guest is ML’s flamenco dance instructor, invited at the last minute because ML is down a woman. (No gay couples at this soiree.)

During the year after the dinner, ML’s unemployed husband—who makes bigos, a Polish meat stew, for the meal—starts working with the kitchen designer. A gynecologist-oncologist couple is headed toward the marital rocks way before the get-together. The wife is already having an affair and her irritation with her Jewish husband, the archetypal mensch, takes an ethnic turn in a conversation with the host, who drives her home from the party. Lucas, another attorney, who has driven his wife to dysfunction, comes to the party to recruit ML into his firm to beef up its divorce practice, and ends up “changing plans” for the good of all.

Some viewers will take away the message that innate humanity that can still emerge in capitalist relations, traditional marriage, and the economy’s privileged class, here more professional and managerial than haut. For me, the fun of this film comes from guessing which of the relationships survive and how this comes to pass. Just enjoy the mash up of professional discretion, romantic relationships, white lies, and intergenerational conflict.

I could have done with less self-referential film industry stuff—Roman Polanski’s recipe for bigos appears in the film credits. The film’s director, daughter of film director Gérard Oury and actress Jacqueline Roma, wrote the screenplay with her son Christopher Thompson (who plays Lucas), so maybe they are entitled. And, the film fulfills the critic Kenneth Burke’s criteria for the “comic frame,” which tells the viewer: “What he should try to get, how he should try to get it, and how he should ‘resign himself’ to a renunciation of the things he can’t get.”

Written by: Frances Chapman, June 13th 2010