Strange bedfellows

'The Names of Love' finds laughs in politics.

The Names of Love 390 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Names of Love 390
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s not often that a movie can be described as both silly and political, but both of these adjectives apply to the new French comedy The Names of Love (Le Nom des Gens).
While at times it’s overly cutesy and derivative, its energy and charm won me over. While you usually know where it’s heading, it’s fun to go along for the ride.
Written by romantic and professional partners Michel Leclerq and Baya Kasmi and directed by Leclerq, the film was inspired by their own very different backgrounds. Le Nom tells the story of Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), a very reserved 50-year-old veterinarian in charge of culling birds that have caused an avian flu outbreak. Arthur is the son of a Holocaust survivor, Annette (Michele Moretti), who wants to forget her past, and a scientist (Jacques Boudet), who designs and builds nuclear reactors. His very proper background, shadowed by his mother’s neverdiscussed tragic childhood, is in sharp contrast to the temperament and family of Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier).
Baya is a much younger, free-spirited woman from a left-wing family. Her father (Zinedine Soualem) is an Algerian refugee who works at menial jobs but is a gifted painter, while her mother (Carole Franck) is a left-wing activist. She has grown up in a Bohemian and politicized milieu, marred only by one trauma: She was molested by her piano teacher. This is the rather flimsy explanation the film offers for her habit, when she grows into a sexy young woman, of seducing right-wing men and “converting” them to her leftist point of view. She even keeps a scrapbook of her conquests and shows off photos of young businessmen who ended up as organic farmers after a fling with her.
Arthur doesn’t really fit the mold of a “fascist” in need of converting, but Baya falls for him anyway after she attacks him for killing ducks when he is in the middle of a radio show interview about the flu crisis at the station where she works. While she is up for casual sex from the moment he steps away from the microphone, he takes a bit longer to get used to the idea. There are some outrageously comic scenes of their early courtship involving quite a bit of nudity (hers) that are as over the top as much is in this film but that made me laugh anyway. I could believe that she might really fall for this square, stable guy, but not that he would be able to tolerate her other lovers, an issue that is raised and then dropped a couple of times. At moments, the film degenerates into clichéd romantic-comedy mode, even referencing the lobster scenes from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.
Various other plot lines involving their families come into play, especially Arthur’s desire to know the feelings his mother has never shared with him about being orphaned in the Holocaust.
Baya is confused about her own identity and is drawn to an Islamic extremist whom she is confident she can manipulate, but this doesn’t quite turn out the way she planned. And throughout all the sex, there is lots of political talk that is a bit dated (the election in which Sarkozy ran against Segolene Royal is a plot point, for example). The more you are interested in the intricacies of French politics, the more you will enjoy all of this, naturally A film like this is nothing without winning leads, and this is the one area where Leclerq has made flawless choices. Jacques Gamblin works the sad-sack shtick well and makes the character alluringly shy rather than dull. The very striking Sara Forestier plays Baya as an explosion of sexual energy. She won a Cesar Award (the French Oscar) for Best Actress for this role, and it was well deserved. She is simply fun to watch, whether she is riding the subway naked or haranguing her lover about politics fully clothed. The rest of the cast is also quite good, and the four actors playing the lovers’ parents are all compelling in their own ways.
While this film raises many serious issues, it ends up resolving them all with a light touch. For some, that will be frustrating; but if you’re in the mood to laugh at a fast-paced comedy laced with politics, you will be charmed by Le Nom des Gens.