The Names of Love (Les Noms des Gens)

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
The Names of Love (Les Noms des Gens)
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Bahia Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) is free-spirited, politically active and uses her body to change the minds of her right-leaning lovers and has a pretty good track record for success converting them. When she first meets Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), a forensic veterinarian, Bahia assumes that he, too, is a right-winger and tries to seduce him but he refuses her. she has met her match in Arthur in “The Names of Love.”

Robin:
Screenwriter turned director Michel Leclerc, with co-scribe Baya Kasmi, tells the story of two very different people who meet and fall in love. Add to this a political philosophy, as espoused by Bahia, that all things to the left are good and those to the right are bad. Her campaign to convert the fascists, as she calls them, has been going on for several years. She sets to convert Arthur only to discover that he, too, is a liberal thinker. Against her principles, Bahia and Arthur fall in love but their differences in age, upbringing and lifestyle will cause a conflict for the couple.

Bahia is the child of Algerian immigrants who are making a life in France. Arthur is French but his mother is Jewish and lost her parents to the Nazis at Auschwitz concentration camp. The middle-aged Jewish Martin and feisty young Algerian Bahia will fall in love but will their very different lifestyles draw them together or break them apart? The getting there is where “The Names of Love” gets interesting and very likable.

Leclerc shows us the past lives of Bahia and Arthur as they grow up. Then, he uses these younger versions of his protagonists to act as muses, conversing with their elder selves about the obstacles of love. The younger Arthur and Bahia flit in and out of scenes at appropriate moments and the result is funny and helps flesh out the older characters nicely. The cultural and age clash between Martin and Benmahmoud makes for some spiky conflict. For example, she is a free spirit who lets the chips fall as they may and uses her body to make political changes in her country. Arthur’s middle-class sensibility is shocked by Bahia’s “make love, not war” attitude, but his attraction to the pretty young woman is stronger.

“The Names of Love” is a clever, often funny April-August romantic comedy that showcases both acting and storytelling. I give it a B.

Laura:
7 members of Korea's World Cup soccer team had the same name and 215,000 French citizens have the same name as another, but when Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin, "The First Day of the Rest of Your Life") does a guest appearance talking about H5N1 Avian flu on live radio and gets no calls, he meets the new production assistant, Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier, "Wild Grass"), who treated the job as a lark and sparks fly.  The ultra conservative buttoned down Arthur and the unconventional Baya discover that they both share tragic histories and The Names of Love (Le nom des gens).

Cowriter (with Baya Kasmi)/director Michel Leclerc's film won both the Best Actress and Original Screenplay awards and the film is a delight, a thinking person's romantic comedy which delves into the more shameful aspects of recent French history, the Arab/Jewish conflict, immigration and the ways people define themselves in a different culture. Forestier, who dazzled in her 2003 "Games of Love and Chance" breakthrough (shown at the MFA's 10th Annual French Film Festival in 2005), is all grown up now and has a Vanessa Paradis kind of quirky gamine appeal.

As Arthur sweats a dearth of call-ins, we witness Baya's flippant and amusing manner of triage which essentially judges all callers idiotic.  In a coffee shop, he's shocked when she cuts to the chase and propositions him, informing him that her rule is sex on the first date or au revoir.  He nervously insists he has a necropsy to perform on a bird that cannot wait.  He's a Jew whose parents championed every doomed bit of technology (an amusing montage).  But his mother hid the history of her Greek parents, victims of the Holocaust, and he has been unable to embrace his roots because of this.  She's the daughter of a French hippie who was thrilled to take on an Arabic name when she married Baya's sweet Algerian father, a man who worked menial jobs to provide for his family in France.  But the music lessons he provided came with an unsavory teacher, unbeknownst to him, who played his daughter rather than the piano.

They meet again and Arthur's thrown for another loop when, left in a supermarket line for way too long, he eventually sees Baya running naked past the store windows and learns her mission - she uses sex to 'turn' right wingers into liberals with a cause she cheerfully tells him.  She's also a spontaneous, big-hearted girl who pries open the doors of a subway train for an elderly couple who couldn't board on time and who buys expensive live crustaceans to set them free at the beach.

The odd couple mix works mainly because Forestier's unbridled performance sells us on an open heart that would find something to attach to in Arthur (Gamblin's performance is more comically mannered).  Meeting the parents adds layers of cross connection and conflict between the two, as do Baya's approach to making the world a better place and Arthur's job (his decision to OK the destruction of a vast number of birds echoes his Holocaust history). Leclerc weaves in and out of a historical timeline, but also has younger versions of Maya and Arthur jump into the present to converse with the elder selves.  The screenplay, based on Leclerc's own relationship with Kasmi, demands some knowledge of French history and present politics, but enough is explained - like how Arthur Martin is also a make of washing machine, his name branding him as something more basically French than his history - for American audiences to get the gist.  The way Arthur seals the deal with Baya, by finding a way to allow her father to express his true self, works both Leclerc's love and cultural identity angles.

B+
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