The French like to mix frothy comedy with weighty ideas but, even for them, that's a tricky blend to get right. Too much froth and the ideas float away. Too much weight and the comedy sinks into a vat of self-importance. Director Michel Leclerc comes close to finding the balance here; however, in this genre, close isn't good enough. Consequently, the film is sometimes funny and occasionally smart yet never quite what it wants to be - funny and smart at the same time.
The names in The Names of Love ( Le nom des gens) only begin to tell the story: His moniker, Arthur Martin, ranks among the most common in France; hers, Baya Benmahmoud, does not. They meet and immediately, in voice-over flashbacks, Leclerc returns to their childhoods. The maternal grandson of Jews killed in Auschwitz, the son of a mother who survived the war to marry a conservative Frenchman, he grew up in a quiet and repressed household. The daughter of a French mother who renounced her blue-blood background for radical politics and marriage to an Algerian immigrant, she was raised in an atmosphere of constant noise and mayhem.
Yet, so different on the surface, each family has a shared history of protecting dark secrets and preserving taboos. In other words, scratch the veneer and what seems like an issue of nationality - the ubiquitous Martin, the exotic Benmahmoud - becomes a question of universality. The two have a lot more in common than they think, although it's a round-about path to finding their connective bond - which, of course, is precisely what puts the comedy in the romance.
How round-about? Well, back in the present, Arthur (Jacques Gamblin) is now an earnest veterinarian specializing in bird flu epidemics. In matters of public safety, he tends to err on the side of caution. By wild contrast, there's not a cautionary bone in Baya's body or, quite often, a stitch of clothing on it. That's because sex is the principal weapon in her unique political arsenal. Seems she sleeps with right-wing fanatics in order to convert them to her liberal sensibilities, a strategy that, perhaps unsurprisingly, has met with considerable success. Her conversion rate is impeccable.
Initially, Baya (Sara Forestier) sees Arthur as just another target, at least until they start comparing histories and finding similarities. There's some real charm in these bonding scenes, much of it generated by Gamblin's push-and-pull performance as an innately subdued guy simultaneously attracted and repelled by this whirlwind of a gal. And the set-pieces that follow, especially an extended dinner-party sequence with the two families, enjoy spurts of hilarity, interspersed with the big idea (yep, the weighty stuff) that, being all prisoners of our past, we're paradoxically united by what seems to separate us.
En route, things do get a bit scattered at times, as Leclerc searches for humour in unlikely places - even the Holocaust and sexual abuse are on the itinerary. There's bravery in his quest, I suppose, but there's also hypocrisy, particularly in his depiction of Baya. A breast here, a bum there, she's always falling out of her clothes, ostensibly to prove her au naturel cred. C'mon. Quite disingenuously, Leclerc is confusing Baya's sexual politics with Forestier's gratuitous nudity - the one is an idea, the other is the oldest trick in the movies. See, serious and frothy: Both are here, bouncing about, but they just don't meet.
The Names of Love
- Directed by Michel Leclerc
- Written by Michel Leclerc and Baya Kasmi
- Starring Sara Forestier and Jacques Gamblin
- Classification: 14A