The Names of Love
Directed by Michel Leclerc. Starring Sara Forestier, Jacques Gambline, Zinedine Soualem, Carole Franck, Jacques Boudet, Michèle Moretti, Zakariya Gouram, Adrien Stoclet, Laura Genovino. (2011, R, 100 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Oct. 21, 2011
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.