The Names of Love
Mixing sex, politics, and unlikely pair in France
Because “The Names of Love’’ is a French romantic comedy, there’s a good deal more sex and politics than our own films of that genre can usually handle. More semiotics, too, but not to worry, there won’t be a test. Instead of asking “What’s in a name?,’’ this slyly delightful piece of Gallic fluff wonders at all the ways that names - the labels we give to one another - bring us into the world and keep us apart from it.
Take Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), the film’s neatly pressed middle-aged hero. With a name shared, he tells us, by 15,207 other Frenchmen - not to mention a well-known line of cookware, as everyone he meets brightly reminds him - he may as well be invisible. Quite contentedly, he nearly is. By contrast, there’s only one Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier), which is lucky for Arthur, for us, and for all of France.
Baya and Arthur meet cute when she storms into a radio interview he’s giving about avian flu (he’s a biologist specializing in epizootic diseases) and flips him off for being a fascist. He’s not, but he’s wearing a suit, which in her universe is the same thing. Baya’s one of those gorgeous, eccentric free spirits who are celebrated in the movies and tend to end up heavily medicated in real life. She usually sleeps only with right-wingers - the better to convert them - but in Arthur’s case she’ll make an exception.
Baya is borderline annoying and so is Michel Leclerc’s hyperstylized post-“Amelie’’ direction, with its multiple voice-overs, piled-high flashbacks, visual gags, and cheeky ironies. But both character and film have enough charm to get you to go along for the ride. Early in the film, Arthur and Baya narrate their respective back stories, which are very French (socialist hippie parents and all that) and filtered through each character’s skittish memories. Because Arthur can’t imagine his father as a young man, the older version (Jacques Boudet) has to play him in the flashbacks.
In fact, “The Names of Love’’ is so French that it’s a little surprising it even made it to these shores. To truly appreciate this movie, you have to understand why Baya might be ecstatic that President Mitterrand helped her Algerian father get his citizenship papers and then be mortified to learn it was actually Giscard d’Estaing’s wife. You also need to get the gag when Arthur’s favorite loser politician, Lionel Jospin, turns up in the movie playing himself. Translation: Imagine a cameo by Ralph Nader.
Still, the film moves along at a comfortable gallop, and the leads win you over, especially Gamblin as a cautious man helplessly smitten with an incautious woman. “The Names of Love’’ is so blithe that you almost don’t notice the juggling act at its center - the way it balances the historical anguish of an older generation with their children’s need to simultaneously honor that anguish and move beyond it. Arthur and Baya’s parents have weathered “le Rafle’’ and the Holocaust, the Algerian War and immigrant hardships. Both marriages are mixed, and their children are France’s future. But what’s their children’s future?
Leclerc and company manage to raise serious points and deliver intelligent laughs at the same time, which is no small feat. And if nothing else, the film’s a two-hour vacation in a sensually neurotic alien culture, “Midnight in Paris’’ for all the livelong day. It’s the kind of movie where someone asks, “Sex first or food?’’ - and the other person has to think about it.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter: @tyburr.