French comedies, at least the ones that get exported, tend to be talky and a bit risqué. Clothes will be taken off, especially those belonging to nubile young women.
All of this accurately describes “The Names of Love,” but then it has to go and spoil things by also trying – not very hard – to be socially conscious. I’m not saying that seriousness and nudity cannot coexist, even in France, but the mix of gravitas and friskiness here is annoyingly superficial. The film’s tone is “crowd-pleasing,” but which crowd exactly is being pleased?
Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) is a neohippie who has taken that old mantra “Make love, not war” to a whole new level. A radical liberal, she makes it her mission in life to convert right-wing men by sleeping with them – the theory being that, in the throes of passion, one is most susceptible to suggestion. This is a funny idea, and I’m surprised director Michel Leclerc, who co-wrote the film with Baya Kasmi, didn’t fully dramatize an actual bedroom conversion. But it’s typical of the film’s scattershot approach that these tidbits are sprinkled about without any follow-up. Too much of “The Names of Love” is a joke book posing as a movie.
The film’s mite of gravitas is that Baya, who is half Algerian, has a tragic family history bound up in the French-Algerian war, and the man she falls in love with – a liberal – has a similar history with the Holocaust. Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) is a veterinarian scientist who, while dapper, is most comfortable performing necropsies on geese. As the film keeps reminding us, he’s never met a free spirit like Baya. We have, though. Past history aside, she’s the generic gamine of frisky French comedies. I guess Arthur never gets out to the movies much.
Leclerc works in a lot of early Woody Allen-ish stylistic devices, such as having the adult characters narrate childhood flashbacks, and a few of the sequences are clever. (Arthur’s father, even as a young man, is portrayed as an old man, because Arthur can’t conceive of his father as ever being young.) There are also a few moments, such as the scene where a teenage Arthur tries to seduce a girl by bringing up his family’s Holocaust past, that are daringly funny but, as usual, go nowhere.
As the Algeria-Auschwitz stuff continued to intrude, I became more and more uncomfortable. Instead of using these elements for black comedy, Leclerc throws them into the film as a diversion from its essential silliness. In a way, he’s doing the same thing young Arthur is: He’s trying to seduce us with seriousness.
Forestier won the 2011 César – the French Oscar – for best actress, and the film itself also won the César for best original screenplay. I’m sure that all the riffs about anti-Arab prejudice and anti-Semitism had something to do with those awards, but riffs is all they are. And Forestier, who is the new “It” girl in French cinema, is all too self-consciously pleased with her prancing. Gamblin, by contrast, spends most of his screen time looking flummoxed – as I suppose he should. He’s not alone. Grade: C+ (Rated R.)