Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Opposites Attract

Forestier and Gamblin in The Names of Love
The Names of Love
Directed by Michael Leclerc
With Jacques Gamblin and Sara Forestier
Released by Music Box Films

No one would accuse The Names of Love of subtlety. Michael Leclerc’s romantic comedy, which follows an unlikely couple trying to make a relationship work despite obvious differences, throws in everything including the kitchen sink (copious nudity, lots of political and racial humor, thudding obvious stereotypes, a handful of allusions to Woody Allen movies) in order to keep itself afloat. But it must be said that, since Leclerc has a light touch underneath the ham-handed obviousness, the movie works despite it all.

For that, Leclerc must thanks his lucky stars for his two stars, each of whom take a stock part and enliven it far past what it deserves. Sara Forestier (who won the Best Actress Cesar, the French Oscar equivalent, for this role) plays Baya Benmahmoud, a French-Algerian free spirit whose radical left-wing stances allow her to have no moral qualms about bedding down various right-wing men in order to bring them around to her side. Baya keeps her romantic life and her sexual-political life separate, until she meets Arthur Martin, a thoroughly ordinary centrist scientist who tracks down the causes of death in various animals. Jacques Gamblin plays Arthur.

Forestier and Gamblin not only make a terrifically engaging couple, they also underplay just enough to keep Baya and Arthur from falling into caricature: the liberal-whore-with-a-heart-of-gold and the stuffy-conservative-scientist are stock archetypes, but as Forestier and Gamblin play them, they very nearly become well-rounded, real people.

Leclerc has also learned his lessons well from Woody Allen, whose presides over the movie’s anarchic spirit. There are cleverly-wove family histories for both characters, as we see his parents and his own youth in black and white and hers in grainy, colored newsreel footage. This also mirrors their upbringing: his in Jewish France, hers in Arabic Algeria. In his narration, Arthur mentions that he can’t remember his father before he got old, so in every flashback, Arthur’s dad is an old man, which makes for some funny moments I n the courtship scenes.

Of course, being French, The Names of Love effortlessly interweaves politics into the very framework, and it is also the cause of some of the best humor in the entire film. In one scene, Baya is nearly inconsolable walking out of the voting booth because she voted for Jacques Chirac, who was obviously the less repellent choice against xenophobic nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Later on, she inadvertently votes for the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, instead of her left-wing choice, Ségolène Royal. And perennial liberal bridesmaid Lionel Jospin (whom Arthur has voted for each time he’s won, as a kind of badge of honor) shows up at their apartment one evening, as a nod to Marshall McLuhan’s cameo in Annie Hall, which is also alluded to when Arthur tries to boil crabs with a different girlfriend.

Arthur’s Jewish guilt is such that when he realizes that he’s using his own awful family history of the Holocaust to get girls (they are fascinated by his stories), he stops doing it. That guilt also brings in younger Alberts, who discuss his latest failure with women in a way reminiscent of Woody and his younger self interacting in Annie Hall.

That Baya was sexually abused by her piano teacher as a young girl is used as running gag fodder, which ranges from unfunny (she can’t play any keyboard put in front of her since they rarely had lessons) to amusing (her parents channel-surf to avoid any mention of sexual abuse, and when they find a channel discussing war crimes, they are satisfied and leave it on since it’s much less reprehensible than the alternative.)

While Leclerc doesn’t have a consistent vision, comedic or otherwise, he does have a serviceable way with a gag, and there are amusing vignettes of Arthur’s parents happily using Beta videotapes and laserdiscs and stumping for nuclear power, losers all. At times, the themes of identity, nationalism and racism rise organically from what’s going on, particularly in the brief but powerful sequences of Arthur’s mother trying to reclaim her lost identity papers. At others, however, it’s forced, and this schizophrenia between a subtle satire and an obvious farce makes The Names of Love only intermittently satisfying, despite the great assistance of its leading players.

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