The opening of this sex farce is cause for alarm, with strong evidence the French have gotten into the so-called Manic Pixie Dream Girl market. (Then again, all those wide-eyed indie-darling kooks of the Aughties – see: Kirsten Dunst, Zooey Deschanel – might plausibly trace their lineage back to Amélie’s original waifish eccentric.) Sara Forestier’s Baya Benhmamoud is flighty and pugnacious. She absent-mindedly flashes her tits (because she just can’t be bothered to keep her shirt in place) and storms into the middle of a live radio broadcast because she thinks the featured guest, a mild-mannered infectious-disease expert named Arthur Martin (Gamblin), is fomenting public hysteria. In truth, Baya’s the hysteric, and her bullying ways in any other context – meaning, a less comely context – would be rightly identified as pathological, not pixie-adorable.
A bad beginning, then, but it gets better – a lot better. Director Michel Leclerc and his co-screenwriter, Baya Kasmi, never swear off whimsy, but they do enrich its broad strokes with a nuanced and substantive inquiry into racial identity. Baya is French-Algerian, and Arthur is the son of a Holocaust survivor who has pointedly swept her Jewishness under the rug. At first, Baya identifies Arthur as her new project – as a form of political action, she beds conservatives in order to convert them – but when she discovers Arthur is a socialist (he’s an acolyte of former prime minister Lionel Juspin who makes an amusing cameo), she instead earnestly embarks on a relationship with him.
What is so surprising – even exhilarating – about The Names of Love is that it shucks off the desultory roadblocks that engine the modern romantic comedy – all that razzmatazz of missed connections and dunderheaded misunderstandings. Neither is this a morality play about two disparate cultures colliding. Baya is frankly thrilled with Arthur’s revelation that he’s part Jewish; a hearty, historical chunk of 20th century racial oppression is compacted in their relationship, she giddily points out. Baya and Arthur get along fine, by and large; the bother for them is their individual struggles with their own evolving identities. How refreshingly adult is that? For all its occasional corniness and coquettishness, The Names of Love is a gratifyingly grown-up kind of love story.