Michel Leclerc’s “The Names of Love” begins with a discussion of names and naming. There are more than 15,000 French people who share the same name as the film’s lead Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), we’re told by Arthur himself. For Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier), no one shares the same name. This observation can be applied as well to the French actress herself as Forestier’s free-spirited performance graces the screen like none other in recent memory. It comes then as no surprise that she won the Best Actress Award at this year’s French César Awards.
Arthur is an ornithologist who works for the French Bureau of Animal Disease. In opening scenes he’s doing a radio show alerting the French public to take possible precautions against the bird flu based on a dead mallard found in a pond. Baya is a temp who is late in arriving to the station to screen callers. After just seconds of the broadcast, she immediately becomes outraged over the potential panic from one dead duck. After humorously trying to disengage the headset from her hair, Baya bursts into the broadcast booth to tell Arthur off in a colorful tirade. In this meet cute sort of way we’re introduced to hippy, free-spirited Baya and straight-laced, somewhat repressed Arthur.
Writer/director Leclerc and co-writer Baya Kasmi cleverly intercut Arthur and Baya’s stories. In Leclerc’s self-professed homage to Woody Allen, the filmmaker uses a direct camera address with flashback reenactments to convey both of Arthur and Baya’s family histories. Arthur’s Jewish grandparents on his mother’s side were killed during the Holocaust under Vichy. Baya’s artistic father lost most of his family during the Algerian War. Baya later exclaims to Arthur that being Jewish and Algerian shows the two sides of France; their relationship is the future of humanity.
Leclerc’s camera address technique will be used, usually with humorous effect, throughout the film as relatives from the past, including younger versions of Arthur and Baya, comment upon or give advice to their present day characters. Nothing is sacred in “The Names of Love” as sociopolitical issues such as Arab-Jewish relations, anti-Semitism, immigration, racial and cultural identity and even sexual abuse are observed or satirically depicted. Life is challenging for the two lovers with their dramatic, and at times colorful, historical baggage.
Yet the biggest challenge for Arthur is Baya’s self-confessed sexual political agenda. In a hilarious riff on “Make Love, Not War,” Baya’s political goal is to convert right-wing powerful men to her left-wing causes by having sex with them. Baya uses her body as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s her political duty, and Arthur shouldn’t see it as a threat to their relationship.
“The Names of Love” is a clever, poignant, funny and sometimes sad take on France, and the world today. Sara Forestier and Jacques Gamblin shine onscreen. Michel Leclerc and Baya Kasmi shine behind the scenes as well. The co-writers won a César Award for Best Original Screenplay.
“The Names of Love” is 102 minutes and Rated R. It plays at the Landmark Theatre in Los Angeles.