Chances are you’ve seen the motto “Make Love, Not War” on numerous T-shirts and bumper stickers in the past. Seeing these self-proclamations makes one wonder: are these people actually practicing what they’re preaching? In The Names of Love, we meet a political heroine who applies this maxim, quite literally, to her lifestyle. Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) is a woman of values, but not in a strictly moral sense. While she will go out of her way to stop subway doors from shutting before an old couple can board, she also feels compelled to sleep with right-winged men to convert their political beliefs to those of her own upstanding.
This semi-biographical French film is classified as a romantic comedy, but director and screenwriter Michel Leclerc stretches the boundaries of the genre, adding other dimensions beyond the conventional meet-cute and alluringly idiosyncratic female love-interest. Aside from the love story, there is a heartfelt emphasis on the importance of heritage, and an even deeper focus on political obligations. In a set of flashback vignettes at the opening of the film, a technique reminiscent of the classic French romantic comedy Amélie (2001), we learn immediately about the main characters’ ethnicities and the formation of their political ideologies. Baya is French-Algerian, although she appears distinctly French in countenance, something she sees as a blessing. No one called her “Dirty Ay-rab” growing up, although she did have other psychological disturbances to worry about. The male lead, Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), is a French avian disease specialist who hides the fact that his mother barely escaped Auschwitz, not wanting to “reap the benefits” of his family’s suffering. Straight away, these characters are given more depth and color than we would see in any American rom-com. This introduction previews controversial topics brought up later in the film that, again, an American movie would never dare to touch on.
Baya and Arthur begin as an odd couple; however, we gradually realize how alike the two actually are. Although incongruous in personality and age, both have mixed ethnicities and families from tragic pasts. Both of their parents dance around these issues, avoiding talk of anything relevant to the misfortunes that haunt them. Eventually, as the two learn to open up about their respective upbringings, we see a much deeper connection than physical attraction; they identify with each other on a worldly level. Baya finds that the two of them “embody France,” in their diverse backgrounds, and later boldly remarks that, “the day there is nothing but half breeds, there will be peace.” The fact that this film does not completely center on the romance of the two lovers, but on their pasts and respective values, contributes to a greater profundity and authenticity of narrative. Add in a completely fresh and vivacious actress for the role of Baya, and this all makes for an enticing film.
Sara Forestier, whose performance won her a César (the French equivalent of an Oscar), infused Baya with a truly brilliant spirit. Put plainly, Baya is bizarre, but not in a Zooey Deschanel kind of way; she is sexually uninhibited and rambunctiously loud-mouthed. Her character is inscrutable, but in a style that captivates your attention. Her casual, mid-conversation nip-slips, flimsy clothing, and loose interpretations of the word “fascist” come to be endearing. As we grow to love her peculiarities, it becomes honorable, not disgraceful, that she sleeps with scores of men to change their political beliefs. We begin to see past these minor transgressions as she performs acts of kindness, from buying crabs and putting them back into the ocean to insouciantly marrying immigrants so that they receive their papers. It is in the quality of Forestier’s acting that enables her character’s Holocaust-related slip-of-the-tongue remarks to come of with the desired comic effect. To complement the antics of our enchanting heroine, Jérôme Bensoussan wrote a perfectly light-hearted, charming score for the film.
Unfortunately, many French political references will go over American viewers’ heads, most detrimentally in a cameo by former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. While these allusions do not harm the overall effect of the movie, many clever comic subtleties are lost, making it obvious why the film did not perform as well in American box offices as it did in France. Many of the jokes center on Arab-Jewish relations and the situation of North African immigrants in France, concepts that are not as accessible for Americans. Some of the references are easier to pick up on; for instance, that Arthur Martin is also the name of a popular French washing machine, a detail that instigates a joke every time Arthur introduces himself. Moreover, although politics are a huge part of the movie, this should not repel the politically apathetic from viewing. Leclerc develops the plot artfully enough so that the humor is accessible for viewers without the appropriate political background. What is more, the politically charged atmosphere is what puts an extremely unique spin on the romantic comedy, making for a more intellectual experience than one would get out of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. It is Baya’s declaration of love near the end of the film that neatly ties together the themes of the movie. Requiring no political opinion or debate, she puts it simply: “I want us to make love … and politics!”