The Names of Love

Sexual politics is sweet in French farce

The Names of Love

4 Stars

Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) is not Brazilian, she'll have you know. The French beauty with the big blue eyes comes from Algerian grandparents and an artistic father who came to France a "penniless war victim and an illegal alien." He soon met Baya's mother, a French hippy who was drawn to the Algerian's exotic name and inherently non-French upbringing.

Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), he tells us upfront, has possibly the most common name in France, and he planned it that way. His Jewish mother barely survived the concentration camps - anything remotely concerning the Holocaust is a taboo subject in Arthur's house - and married Arthur's dad at least partially because his name is so utterly French.

The first half-hour of the charming romance The Names of Love is devoted to sorting out nearly every detail of the soon-to-be- couple's nationality, not only because both are obsessively concerned with such things but because their heritage affects their relationship and informs their actions like no movie I've seen recently. Not that either one is necessarily hostile toward any ethnicity - Arthur's a centrist with left leanings and Baya fancies herself a modern-day Lysistrata, preferring to sleep with her enemies in the hope of changing their mind subliminally. (She's also such a free spirit that she often forgets to put on clothes before going out. Throughout Arthur and Baya's unusual courtship, one that involves green-card weddings, sex at a nuclear plant and one bafflingly uncomfortable dinner party at which, to her horror, Baya can't stop free-associating Jewish-related words, including, hysterically, "iceberg" and "Woody Allen."

Refreshingly, the central question in the romance is not whether straight-laced bird-flu specialist Arthur can bear her polyamorous ways or whether Baya can stand to settle down with someone whose political views aren't constantly at the forefront of his thoughts. Those issues are addressed, of course, but their conflict is more internal than that and is driven by guilt, shame and secrets; the kind of drama that can't be sussed out over coffee and a hookah.

Writer-director Michel Leclerc kicks things off at a rapid, nearly Amelié-esque pace, tossing the kitchen sink at the viewer through fourth-wall breaking monologues, flashbacks (Arthur and Baya interact with their former selves and their grandparents at times) and frame after frame of Forestier's bare, sensual curves. But once the two lovers meet, Leclerc's stylized tricks thankfully take a back seat to sultry, wryly observational filmmaking. As Baya, Forestier is a marvel - her imperfect (though certainly lovely) features pierce the screen as much as they bedazzle Arthur, giving her vulnerability to complement her jagged worldview. (Basically: "Every right-winger is a fascist.") Gamblin, meanwhile, brings a tender performance where one was needed. His character is old enough to be Baya's father (something also addressed amusingly), yet he never leers at or shelters her. It's a delicate line that Gamblin dances exquisitely.

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