Romance with a splash of politics
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Aug 19, 2011
Baya Benmahmoud is not promiscuous. Sure, the heroine of "The Names of Love" has sex with lots of men, but she doesn't do so wantonly.
Baya (Sara Forestier) is waging a personal - very personal - campaign to convert France's male "fascists" to her brand of leftism, one tryst at a time.
Then Baya meets Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), an emotionally repressed bird-flu expert who seems ripe for one of her erotic makeovers. But Arthur turns out to be only slightly to the right of the endearingly ditzy radical. And she's thrilled to learn that Arthur's mother is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor. Baya, whose father hails from French-colonized Algeria, decides that she and Arthur are linked by their "half-breed" genetics and tragic family histories.
"The Names of Love" is somewhat serious about French politics but not about anything else. It's a playfully sexy farce that plays like a Gallic "Annie Hall" - if Annie had been as blithe about nudity as Baya is. The Franco-Algerian beauty prefers revealing outfits, which she doesn't always remember to wear. In one scene, Baya takes a shower, is distracted by a phone call and completely forgets to dress. She rushes down the street and into the Metro, clad in only a pair of boots. Then she sits down, of course, across from a woman in a burqa.
Understandably, Arthur is beguiled by Baya. But their personal styles repeatedly clash. He encourages her to dress more modestly and not to broach painful subjects with his mother. She just can't restrain herself, though, so dinner with Arthur's parents involves not only conspicuous decolletage but also numerous references to the period in European history that Arthur's mom never discusses. Can this one-night stand be saved?
The movie's verve is not diminished by subtitled dialogue, thanks to Forestier's ebullient performance. (It won her the French equivalent of a Best Actress Oscar.) Yet a few things don't quite translate.
The movie's French title means "The Names of People," which explains why Arthur and Baya introduce themselves by analyzing their monikers: He calls his France's most common male name - it's even on a line of appliances - while she insists that hers is unique in that country. Some American viewers won't get the jokes about French politics, in which such names as Chirac and Sarkozy serve as punch lines. (One prominent pol does a cameo, recalling Marshall McLuhan in "Annie Hall.")
Writer-director Michel Leclerc and co-writer Baya Kasmi overuse some tricks, notably appearances by the central characters' younger selves, but they overcome the movie's sitcom tendencies with satire and sweetness. The latter probably owes much to the fact that Leclerc and Kasmi are a couple. "The Names of Love" may not be autobiographical, but even its balmiest sequences are anchored in real-life romance.
Contains nudity, sexual situations and profanity. In French with English subtitles.