Michel Leclerc’s The Names of Love (2010) (a bad alternative to the French title “Les noms des gens”) is now showing in Hartford. It’s a disarming comedy that aims to push buttons—about ethnic identity in contemporary France, about the cariactures that “the Left” and “the Right” have become as political positions (and not only in contemporary France, alas), about the ties that bind, intergenerationally and heterosexually, and, generally, about the travails of living in our times.
It’s a movie that puts the politics of sex front and center, but in a casual and appealing way, taking the command to “love thy enemies” in a genital sense. Ditzy, sexy extrovert Baya Benmahmoud, (Sara Forestier, in a force-of-nature performance) is of French-Caucasian and Arab-immigrant descent, daughter of a strident, hippie-chick mother (Carole Franck, amusingly in-your-face) and a quiet, unassuming, but quite talented Algerian father (Zinedine Soualem, in a lovely, understated performance). Their union is backstory, but it’s a marriage that speaks for itself to French audiences as a political gesture. As a schoolgirl, Baya suffers the sexual deprivations of a pedophile, allegedly a piano teacher, and the film attributes her grown-up sexual “freedom” to her early experiences (as she puts it: she avoided dating boys because she was afraid they’d discover she had a problem with sex; then she started sleeping around with men because she was afraid they’d discover she had a problem with sex). The “problem with sex” isn’t delved into in the movie because Baya, by the time we meet her, has changed simply “having sex” into creating political converts. She offers herself to those she terms “fascists” (essentially anyone not ultra-liberal) in order to change their lives and their minds. The film, scripted by Leclerc and Baya Kasmi, maintains the right of “the screwball comedy” to make that seem plausible (while perhaps giving a new meaning to that generic label).
We meet Baya when she meets Arthur Martin (his name synonymous with a maker of popular household appliances in France), a 50 year old, unmarried biologist who is a bit high profile because he has to investigate and report on deaths of birds and animals in order to determine whether a threat to persons, such as “avian flu,” is involved. Arthur’s father is a Frenchmen who fought in Algiers, but his mother is Jewish—her parents died in Auschwitz after being deported from France. None of this is spoken of, any more than pedophilia is spoken of in the Benmahmoud household, and there’s an amusing sequence showing the parents in both families turning from channel to channel to avoid a sudden rash of stories on the Holocaust (in Arthur’s youth) and child molestation (in Baya’s youth). The film’s special knack is its ability to treat such matters in a light vein, avoiding the kinds of histrionics and hand-wringing that a more dramatic presentation would go for, and its focus on trying to get on with life despite such unsettling backstories. Indeed, the film suggests that, in a world of global displacements and contending ethnicities, one of the struggles becomes “les noms des gens” (or, “the names we give people.”)
Baya bursts in on Arthur’s radio broadcast about a dead duck, calling him a fascist for trying to segregate birds (there’s a moment late in the film where we see rows of captive birds rounded up to be gassed that does underscore her point). She finds out, after offering to have sex with him, that he’s actually a liberal (he’s a “Jospinist,” or supporter of Lionel Jospin, onetime French prime minister and a Socialist candidate for President, and one of the oddly off-hand moments in the film (there are a few) features a cameo by the political leader, who claims he came to visit Arthur because he feels that “Jospinists” are as rare as the largely extinct mandarin duck). For Baya, sex without the need to convert one’s partner leads to love, and Arthur, played by Jacques Gamblin as stodgy and dull but not utterly hopeless, finds the free-form lifestyle of Baya heady indeed (one scene not be forgotten is when Baya takes a seat on the Métro before realizing she’s nude—it’s an anxiety dream most have experienced and it’s fun to see it happen. Would it be believable without the cellphone?)
Leclerc and Kasmi’s feel for the absurdities of life under labels is quite commendable. Baya and Arthur’s dinner with his parents is amusingly awful, and it only gets worse when her parents arrive for dessert. Like a late Seventies Woody Allen movie, the film presents likeably daffy people of a certain degree of intellectual and economic status matching their neuroses, but, unlike Allen’s characters, they teeter much closer to a world that’s losing its old moorings in the politics of identity.
At one point, fairly late, Baya learns that Arthur is Jewish and insists that their own Arab-Jewish alliance is the kind of thing that will save the world. Arthur concedes that, as hybrids themselves, their children might have “hybrid vitality,” an improvement in the genetic chain that comes about through the mix of different gene pools. Whether true or not as biology, mixing comedy with social issues, as Les Noms des Gens does, can create a refreshing hybrid in its own right.
The Names of Love
Directed by Michel Leclerc; written by Baya Kasmi and Michel Leclerc
Starring Sara Forestier and Jacques Gamblin