Religious and ethnic identity are hot-button issues in France, but the young film director Michel Leclerc makes light of them in his new movie, The Names of Love, in that most time-honored French way: by adding sex.
Opening this weekend, the movie tells the story of an unlikely affair between Baya BenMahmoud (Sara Forestier), a young, idealistic, sexually damaged, and manipulative Arab beauty, and her apparent opposite, named Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), a middle-aged Jewish ornithologist who has spent most of his life, “learning how not to talk about anything of substance” with his cloistered parents. (American audiences might miss a bit of the humor here: Arther Martin is the name of a brand of French ovens that, like the character, are trustworthy, conservative, and dull.) Arthur quickly falls for the delightful Baya—she looks like an uncanny cross between American actresses Alexis Bledel and Zooey Deschanel—and her sky-blue eyes and wild sexuality.
On Baya’s end, the attraction is more complicated. Born to a hippie mother and a reserved Algerian father, Baya grows up to be a self-described “political whore” who attempts to convert right-wingers by sleeping with them. In a moment of unexpected beauty, one among many in this movie, Baya tells an interviewer that though most fascists will never listen to the other side of the argument, there is a moment, right before sexual climax, in which the mind opens to suggestion; seizing that moment, she’ll whisper some sweet political truths in her paramour’s ears: “Not all Arabs are thieves, not all Jews are rich.”
Arthur is not quite as bigoted as Baya’s usual targets, but he is rigid and intense. Born to an obsessive-compulsive nuclear engineer of a father and a mother who obsesses over new technology while vigorously repressing her past, he lives life just going through the motions, thinking little and feeling less. But he cannot escape his heritage, and neither can Baya. For him, identity is rooted in Auschwitz, where his grandparents were murdered; for her, in Algeria, the former colony that shaped her father and his hang-ups.
The past, it seems, keeps both Jew and Arab in a never-ending swirl of confusion. In one amusing flashback, for example, we see a teenaged Arthur trying to talk about his martyred grandparents to score some sympathy points from an attractive classmate; he is overcome by guilt midway through, and an already awkward adolescent rite of passage—learning how to talk to girls—is rendered even more awful by, well, the Holocaust. Baya has her confusions, too: Like high-schoolers everywhere, she tries on one identity after another, playing with being both Arab, Algerian, French, liberal, victim, and aggressor.
To convey his protagonists’ sentimentality, Leclerc often shoots in the style of old home movies, offering grainy and shaky views of nostalgic scenes. This style is used mainly to represent Baya and Arthur’s past, but, from time to time, their present, too, is featured through the same sepia-toned filter. As this happens, old melts into new, and past experiences bond with present ones to create a real sense of intimacy.
But this is a French comedy, which means that the emotional charge is frequently alleviated by moments of hilarity that serve to make the film’s message of tolerance even more poignant. While courting Arthur, for example, Baya hosts a meal for his conservative parents that goes awfully awry. When asked about her job history, she replies, “I worked on the trains, you know, the railroads, then as a camp counselor, well, not that kind of camp, but like a summer camp.” Realizing how loaded her words might have sounded to the two elderly Holocaust survivors, she retreats to the kitchen and cries. Arthur follows her and, clearly disturbed, suggests that she empty her mind of all Holocaust related words. She responds with a speedy litany of, “Jew, Holocaust, gas chambers, concentration camp, Jew, Nazis, Jew, Jew,” which she spits out as if uttering curse words. As Arthur’s parents leave, Baya hugs and kisses his mother. With that, a comedic romp is turned into a poignant and touching scene.
And therein lies the film’s charm. In a lighthearted and engaging way, it touches on monumental, loaded subjects. And it manages to convincingly argue that ideologies, no matter how murderous or misguided, will always be dwarfed by people—passionate, intelligent, and attentive people trying to chart their course through life. Unlike American romantic comedies, The Names of Love doesn’t focus on two lovers in glorious isolation but insists that even the sweetest romance should never be blind to history, to society, to life.
This point is delivered poignantly in the film’s last scene. Now married, Baya and Arthur decide to name their newborn baby Chang BenMahmoud Martin. He is the idyllic child of a post-racial world, a world in which national traumas and personal crises can cancel each other out and create a hopeful future, a world that, for now, exists solely in French comedies.
Joseph Winkler is a writer living in New York.