(2010)4.5Nathan SouthernMost films tell such conventional stories, and play by the rules so often, that it can be thrilling to run into an exception -- a mainstream feature that takes real chances with its form and content. The Names of Love, a French-language romantic comedy directed by Michel Leclerc, does exactly that. The characters are original creations, the likes of whom we've never before encountered onscreen, and the picture keeps throwing in dazzling little flashes of structural invention and wit that make it a joy to experience.
As an autobiographical film à clef co-scripted by Leclerc and romantic partner Baya Kasmi, the story opens with an initial meeting of two oddballs. Jacques Gamblin is Arthur Martin, a Jewish avian scientist in his late forties. When we first see him, he's moderating a radio call-in program on the subject of bird flu. Bahia Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier), an Algerian girl in her thirties who is prescreening Arthur's calls, bursts into the room in mid-broadcast -- profanely blasting Arthur for on-air comments that she brands fascistic. The movie then jumps back in time to detail the colorful familial histories of each individual, with eccentric details both funny and, on occasion, terribly sad.
The film then returns to the present day. A love affair commences between the pair, with Arthur discovering that the politically radical Bahia is not merely sexually uninhibited, but has a bizarre hobby of finding, seducing, and bedding reactionary men, whom she "converts" with incendiary statements just prior to orgasm. Though Arthur is a self-professed left-winger, he naturally finds Bahia's liberated sexuality more than a little bit difficult to adjust to within the context of a committed relationship. Nevertheless, he attempts to accept her liaisons without asking or expecting her to change. Later, Arthur attempts to come to terms with a familial tragedy from his own past, and Bahia lends a hand, with unexpectedly tragic consequences.
Aside from its quirky characters, this film might not sound particularly unusual. Much of its charm involves its offbeat style, though -- particularly the instances where it veers away from the norm by bending reality. For example, Arthur's mother and father appear in one of the flashbacks. But the father who turns up onscreen is old, fat, and bald -- because, as Arthur reminds us (while appearing, as an adult observer, in the flashback scene), he can't remember his father any other way. And after the film depicts Arthur and Bahia as youngsters, those versions of the characters periodically turn up in the present day to chat with their adult selves, alternately offering wisdom, encouragement, and admonition as needed. At one point, even Arthur's deceased grandparents appear as their younger selves to chat with him. This sort of risk-taking makes the movie feel refreshingly original.
The picture's humor consistently scores a bull's-eye by emerging from the quirks of the characters -- as in a hilarious scene where the scatter-brained, spaced-out Bahia forgets to finish dressing and walks out onto the street, and into a subway car, completely nude. And the film does an outstanding job of explaining why the lovers are drawn to one another. This is particularly true of Arthur's attraction to Bahia, who (in addition to being gorgeous, and erotic in her lack of inhibitions) demonstrates a palpable selflessness toward the strangers whom she encounters. This makes Arthur fall helplessly in love with her and pulls us in right along with him.
If the movie has a flaw, it has to do with Leclerc and Kasmi's need to clinically account for Bahia's polygamous behavior. After a humorous setup, the flashbacks suddenly indicate that the young woman suffered from ongoing molestation, around the age of seven or eight, by a piano teacher. And while the screenwriters disclose this information tastefully -- culminating in a well-handled sequence that has Bahia's parents deducing her violation with only behavioral clues -- it casts a pall over the rest of the film by forcing us to read Bahia's sexual looseness more gravely than we would if the filmmakers simply presented her actions sans explanation. Though the shift to monogamy that Bahia eventually experiences in her relationship with Arthur makes logical sense, it isn't credible because of the seriousness of the molestation; we're left feeling that she has major libidinal issues that are left dangling and unresolved. Moreover, when Arthur finally learns of the abuse, his reaction isn't pronounced enough; we merely get an exact retread of the scene with her parents. We look to Arthur to comfort and reassure Bahia; when this doesn't happen, he lets us down.
Luckily, though, these missteps are not critical ones. What counts is that the movie, despite its minor flaws, retains a buoyant, infectious optimism about life and the potential for human connection, and it establishes characters that we grow to sincerely love -- while laughing empathetically at the absurdity of their lives. As such, the movie sends us out in a state of blissful satisfaction.
Free-spirited Arab liberal Baya (Sara Forestier) uses seduction to covert conservative men to her left-wing lifestyle, but finds herself falling for apolitical, middle-aged Jewish scientist Arthur after bonding with him over the Algerian War and the Holocaust.