thenamesofIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant and/or through the iTunes Store? The Names of Love is available for rent through both Netflix Watch Instant and the iTunes Store.

Starring: Jacques Gamblin & Sara Forestier

Directed by: Michel Leclerc

Screenplay by: Baya Kasmi

The Names of Love marks the first film I have seen that practically requires the viewer to be familiar with the history, politics, and culture of the film’s nationality, which in this case is French. The winner of two Cesar Awards (the French Oscars) for best female lead and best writing, The Names of Love is a romantic comedy that satirically deals with very heavy issues concerning anti-Semitism, anti-Arab prejudice, and French politics. Although you don’t have to be French or Algerian to understand what is going on in this film, an understanding of these issues, which have beset France from World War II to the present, helps to appreciate the many nuances present in the story.

The film’s wacky premise takes the popular slogan of “make love, not war” and applies it literally through its main character, Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier), a hippie free-loving French Algerian in her 20’s who believes that she can change the world for the better by sleeping with right-wing “fascists” and converting them through sex. Baya is the daughter of an Algerian refugee (Zinedine Soualem) and a French hippie heiress who rebelled against her wealthy family. Baya is a firm believer in having sex on the first date – the sooner the better to convert those misguided fascists. On the other extreme end of the spectrum is Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), an ornithologist middle-aged single man. His parents are a nuclear scientist and Algerian war veteran (Jacques Boudet) and a Jewish mother (Michele Moretti) who lost her parents to the Nazis camps and has since then chosen to forget her Jewish roots. Baya meets Arthur in the beginning of our story and she decides he is a worthy challenge and pursues him. What follows is a roller coaster of a romance that is full of quirky situations that one can describe as being decidedly French.

The new “It” girl in French cinema, Sara Forestier initially comes off as extremely obnoxious and naïve. Baya seems aimless, irresponsible, and manipulative. During the course of the film, however, her idealistic fervor and burning desire to help people rubs off on you. She has a winning spirit of innocence and her reckless behavior is well-meaning. At the same time, Forestier’s performance, although good, is not as exemplary as I would expect any winner of a Cesar for best performance to be. I suspect that the film’s ideas about anti-Arab prejudice and anti-Semitism influenced Forestier’s peers to vote for her.

As for the leading man, Jacques Gamblin does nothing but stand around for the entire film looking flummoxed. He is simply a witness to Baya’s inspired madness. To be fair, Arthur Martin is supposed to be a boring and reserved man who holds no opinions about anything other than being a big fan of former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (who makes a cameo appearance, which presumably will mean absolutely nothing to most American audiences). Except for his physical appearance, you do wonder what could have attracted Baya in pursuing Martin.

For you film history buffs, you may notice that director Michel Leclerc employs a lot of Woody Allen style devices in the film. For example, adult characters narrate childhood flashbacks (but in a clever twist on the device, Arthur’s father, as a young man, is portrayed as an old man because Arthur cannot imagine his father as ever being young). Another example is Lionel Jospin’s cameo appearance, which recalls Marshal McLuhan’s appearance in Annie Hall.

An interesting aspect of The Names of Love is the juxtaposition between its broad, farcical comedy and the film’s dealing with the serious issue of long standing racism in French culture. France has long endured racism against both the Jews (as evidenced with Arthur Martin’s mother, a Jew who escaped persecution under the Nazis and who decided to change her name so that people would not know she was Jewish) and the Arabs (as seen with Baya’s Algerian father who saw his uncle and other family members innocently massacred by French soldiers during the Algerian War). I liked that the film boldly decides to tackle this issue, particularly within the context of a light romantic comedy. No American studio would have the balls to do something like this. At the same time, the film clearly does not concern itself with explaining to its international audience the particular brand of racism in France. It is almost as if Leclerc made his film solely for French audiences. I was able to glean from the film the nature of these racisms in France, but I think the film would have benefited greatly with some additional background information.

The Names of Love could have also benefited from not beating its audience over the head with its social and political message about racism. Some of the most effective films have dealt with such serious issues and conveyed their message in an allegorical way. For example, in Night of the Living Dead, director George Romero used zombies to represent racism rather than deal with the subject more literally. In this way, the audience does not feel like it is being lectured to and it is less likely to tune out whenever a character launches into a diatribe about how racism is bad. The beauty of cinema is that you can use different and more effective devices to convey the same message in such a way that audiences can better relate to it. What we get instead is a dinner scene in which the two sets of parents (Baya’s and Arthur Martin’s) meet for the first time. The setup for the scene feels shoehorned in and the way that the parents meet is implausible (Baya impulsively invites her parents over to meet Arthur’s parents even though she by now obviously should know that the two parental couples will not get along).

Director Michel Leclerc’s inexperience as a filmmaker is apparent in the constant tonal shifts of the movie. The film bounces around from being light and comedic to dealing with serious political issues. Leclerc begins the film on a weak foot as he drags us through a long-winded opening in which we meet our two main characters through a series of cleverly told flashback sequences that take us through each character’s family history. The sequence feels too long and it lacks enough interest or humor to make you care for the characters. On the other hand, although I did not care whether or not these characters would ever end up together, I was interested in the trajectory of these characters’ lives separately and together. I mentioned Annie Hall and this film’s style and narrative can best be described as a Gallic Annie Hall. It is playful and farcical like Annie Hall, but it lacks the intellectual sophistication of Woody Allen’s masterpiece. Leclerc intended his film to be like Annie Hall (there is even a crab scene that is substituted for the lobster scene in Annie Hall) and he is quoted as saying, “I secretly hope he’ll [Woody Allen] end up suing me for plagiarism, which might give me a chance to actually meet him!”

The boringly titled The Names of Love is not funny most of the time and its integration of a wacky romance with its various political ideas smacks more of pretentiousness than being smart and sophisticated. Many of the situations in the film are so off-the-wall that you either chalk it up to French sensibilities that are totally foreign to you or you find them too implausible to accept. However, Sara Forestier’s energetic and angry performance keeps you interested enough to stick with the movie and see where her unlikely romance with Arthur Martin will take them.

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