The French rom-com The Names of Love serves up a bounty of clichés and borrowed ideas, but it's also overtly political, bringing up issues American rom-coms wouldn't dare touch. In that way and others (like the female lead's plentiful, unabashed nudity), The Names of Love is oh so French, and if you're more a "Vive le différence" type than a "freedom fries" type, this could be the film for you.
The title refers to the names of the film's unlikely lovers, names that come with considerable baggage. Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) shares his name with a brand of cooker, while Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) associates her name with her family history and cultural background as a Franco-Algerian Arab. The two meet cute when Arthur —whose job it is to look out for bird flu—appears on a radio show for which Baya is screening calls. By interrupting Arthur on the air, Baya makes her first day on the job her last, but she also insists on a date with the man she's just harangued for being too cautious. How can he say "no"?
Turns out both Arthur and Baya are committed left-wingers, but while the former is conservative in his behavior, the latter lets it all hang out (literally, as her loose-fitting sweaters invariably flash her braless left breast). Yessiree, it's another odd couple composed of a neurotic, middle-aged square and a gorgeous young "free spirit," so it's no surprise that director Michel Leclerc and his co-writer Baya Kasmi regularly evoke Annie Hall-era Woody Allen: apart from the punchline flashbacks, The Names of Love allows Arthur to have fantasy consultations with his teen self (Adrien Stoclet).
Baya's flashbacks reveal that she was regularly molested by her piano teacher, which is meant to explain her current sexual liberation as a rebellious reclamation of her body. Baya has devoted her sex life primarily to "turning" conservatives to her liberal viewpoint, one horny "fascist" at a time. Arthur is aghast to learn of Baya's unflagging sexual adventures, but she assures him that he is different: for one thing, he's already left-wing, and for another, she actually likes him. Arthur knows he's a lucky fella, but can he get used to a girlfriend so flibbertigibbety she accidentally leaves the house naked?
The Names of Love may not be the funniest movie around, and if you're allergic to "cute," you may be in for a long 102 minutes. But if the foregone happy ending is rather bourgeois, it's also a hard-won reward for the wrestling the couple must endure over their family histories. The Jewish Martin is haunted by his Holocaust-victim grandparents, Baya's uncles were slain in the Algerian Civil War, leading the two to wonder if what feels right can rise above the historical wrongs of the past. As Leclerc has it, the sanest thing is to savor the sweet aftertaste of bitter history.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]