The Names of Love
by George Sax
American audiences may experience a little culture disorientation during Michel Leclerc’s free-style and wickedly pointed new comic film The Names of Love, but this shouldn’t be much of an impediment to their enjoyment of it. Leclerc and his co-writer, Baya Kasmi, have spun their superficially daffy romantic comedy as a political spoof, and the results have something of a Gallic flavor, but their amusing jabs at the French body politic are going to be accessible enough to Americans with no more than a bare modicum of understanding of politics and human behavior, which surely transcends national borders.
Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) is an ornithologist in his late 40s employed as an avian disease investigator by a government agency, a job that gives him ample ambit for his intense cautionary tendencies. He has a startling encounter with Baya (Sara Forestier) at the radio station where he’s gone to warn the public about the remote possibility of a bird flu epidemic. (“We must apply the principle of caution.”) A leftist political engagé ditz, Baya is in the process of walking off her temp job as a call screener after blowing her stack at a dense caller. On her way out, she barges into the studio to berate Arthur, on-air. Somehow, she’s conflated duck and geese surveillance with persecution of immigrants.
Baya, a svelte very pretty girl in her early 20s, insists on calling at least half the French political establishment and constituency fascist, with little apparent understanding of the term. Arthur is a moderately liberal and, of course, cautious Socialist Party voter. She immediately proposes an afternoon liaison; he has a prior obligation. Since she demands spontaneity their eventual coalescing is almost thwarted. Instead, this oddest of couples starts an affair. This despite another of Baya’s quirky habits: She sleeps with the enemy, that is, with “fascists,” in order to cure them of their rightist afflictions. According to her, at least, it works.
Leclerc and Kasim have at a number of political and cultural targets and their absurdest aspects: post-1960s-style leftist simplisms; France’s historical amnesia about its collaboration with the Nazi murder of Jews; identity politics and its exaggerated self-importance.
This isn’t the usual stuff of romantic comedy, but the filmmakers have mostly managed to bring off this trick with a high degree of success. For most of the film, their emphases on idiosyncratic comedy and farcical convolutions deftly provide a launching pad for the political and social sport. The two stars contribute importantly, adeptly turning somewhat caricatural characters into almost recognizable human beings with serious hangups. (The work here is almost infinitely better than the dismal Sunday supplement psychology in the current American movie Friends With Benefits.)
Names becomes a little strained near the end in a sequence that calls to mind the 2008 Jeanne Moreau Holocaust-suppression film One Day You’ll Understand.
But it doesn’t stray long enough to prevent a return to its purposely wacky course.
Watch the trailer for The Names of Love
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