Film review: The Names of Love

November 25, 2011

The heroine of the sprightly French comedy “The Names of Love” has an inventive solution to an old political dilemma.

"The Names of Love"

As a hardcore left-wing activist, Baya Benmamoud – her dad is Algerian – is forever getting into arguments with right-wing “fascists.” Rather than debate them or attack them, Baya sleeps with her political opponents to convert them to her cause. Since Baya is portrayed by the beautiful French actress Sara Forestier, this literal reading of “make love, not war” principle proves to be enormously successful. Everybody wins!

“The Names of Love” is a rare beast – a French sex comedy that’s actually funny. Director Michel Leclerc has clearly studied his Woody Allen films, and the movie plays out like a Gallic “Annie Hall” with lots of political jokes and plenty of full frontal nudity.

As a romantic comedy, the film also makes some interesting choices. For instance, you might expect that the guy Baya finally falls for would be a hardcase conservative with a secret heart of gold.

But no, instead Baya finds herself returning to the somber Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), a rather apolitical veterinarian who specializes in the spread of avian flu. Arthur regards the free-spirited Baya with something akin to scientific wonder. Her utter lack of sexual inhibition fascinates him, and she stirs in him feelings that he’s forgotten he possessed in the first place.


With the all the sexual elements, you might also expect “The Names of Love” to come across like a hard-R, Judd Apatow-style comedy. But again, the film confounds expectations by exploring some rather heavy and sophisticated themes about immigration, identity and public policy in modern-day France. One funny scene even manages to wring some humor out of the issue of French complicity in the Holocaust, which is rather tricky to pull off in the best of circumstances.

As a cinematic import, however, “The Names of Love” has some weaknesses. Much of the humor is political, contemporary, and specific to French culture. Arthur Martin, for instance, is apparently the name of a popular line of French appliances – as a running gag, this is rather lost on American audiences. The movie also features a cameo by a politician who appears to be the French equivalent of Al Gore.

But director Leclerc keeps the tone light, and most of the romantic comedy gags translate just fine. Gamblin and Forestier have a terrific chemistry in their scenes together, and the film uses some clever flashback techniques to lend weight to the relationship. Baya is half Arab, you see, and Arthur is half Jewish. The film’s essential message – racism is bad – is a little conspicuous, maybe, but certainly agreeable.

“The Names of Love” is unrated, but would surely get an R for all the sex and nudity, which says more about our broken ratings systems than it does about the film. This movie is a lot of fun, and a fascinating example of how filmmakers tackle the mainstream rom-com on the other side of the pond.

Grade: B
Director: Michel Leclerc
Cast: Sara Forestier, Jacques Gamblin, Zinedine Soualem
Length: 1 hour, 32 minutes

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