Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 01, 2011 1:19 pm 
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Silly and serious

The French title of The Names of Love is Le nom des gens -- people's name. This is a romantic comedy, but it's a uniquely French one, a romantic comedy of ideas, and its starting point is literally on people's names, and the way they hide or reveal cultural and racial identities. This is a romantic comedy, but it's also a movie about the way France is now, the history its citizens carry around with them, the ways in which they are marked by the main events of the last century and the politics of today. Partly this is a film about multiculturalism. It makes use of various devices to get its points across, some of them improbable, some farcical, and some simply fantastical. This is also very definitely a film in French by and about and for French people. It has had a more mixed reception with American critics than with the French ones, who generally liked it very much. It's not exactly a great comedy. But its genuine appeal even to the English-speaking audience is that it's witty and quick on its feet and it gives voice to aspects of life Hollywood has no language for. Le nom des gens doesn't entirely find that language either, but makes a darned good stab at it.

Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) and Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) meet cute when the much younger Baya flies into a rage at a sort of informational radio broadcast. Arthur is an animal epidemiologist, and he's taking call-in questions about precautions that must be taken about a bird virus. Baya has been hired to take some of the calls, but she finds the callers and Arthur equally idiotic, and bursts into the sound studio to tell him so. Somehow, they're attracted to each other. But there are complications.

They're obvious opposites. Young Baya is the leftist daughter of an equally leftist French-born mother and an Algerian-born Arab father whose parents were casualties of the Algerian war. She was sexually abused by a piano teacher and partly as a result and due to her desire to eliminate "fascists," as she calls anybody who's not a socialist, she now is a political "whore," seducing rightwingers and converting them to kinder, more caring ways of life. She doesn't look Arab or have much of a sense of Arab identity, but she aggressively pronounces her last name the Arabic way. Nonetheless people persist in thinking her origins are Brazilian, and she doesn't always contradict them.

Arthur Martin, who has one of the most common names in France -- it's depicted as being the name of a brand of washing machine -- has a more complicated family history, which has largely been kept from him. His grandparents were Greek Jews. His mother survived while her parents were taken away in the war and killed. His parents' whole lives have been dedicated to forgetting that this happened and where they come from. Dinner table chat is an assiduous pursuit of innocuous non-topics. Arthur is a scientist and otherwise a tidy, well-organized man, as nondescript as his name.

Young Arthur and his Greek grandparents are characters who come and go in the film and whom the adult Arthur sometimes addresses. Baya's free sexuality extends to wearing clothes that don't always keep her breasts out of sight, and on one early occasion she goes out into the streets of Paris stark naked out of sheer forgetfulness. She winds up sitting in the Metro opposite a woman in full burka. Perhaps to that woman's strict Muslim husband she is just what he sees in secular western woman anyway. Anglo tourists should not expect this to happen in real life. But it's a neat satire on the insensitivity of cultural liberalism.

The contrast between Baya and Arthur is of someone who lets it all hang out (quite literally sometimes) and acts out her traumas and conflicts, in her case, and a man who has grown up with repression and self-abnegation and the discipline of a specialist. His job is to perform necropsies of recently dead animals and to establish protective quarantines: to define, analyze and restrict. But he's no fascist, and Baya likes him. She bursts into tears when she thinks she has accidentlaly voted for Sarkozy. He's a Jospiniste, a supporter of the failed French socialist presidential candidate of 1995 and 2002, Lionel Jospin, whom Baya brings to his flat as a present one day (with a cameo by the real Jospin). Somehow Baya and Arthur make a warm couple. Opposites attract, and though older, he's available -- and rather delighted by her. But there are many comic interruptions, all in the way of cultural and historical elucidation. First comes Baya's tendency to shack up with any ultraconservative she runs into. A dinner where she meets Arthur's parents becomes an absurd comedy of broached taboos. She wants to observe their rules of silence, but she just can't. Eventually Arthur, who feels his parents' repression of their Jewishness and their family's role in the Holocaust has robbed him of an essential part of his identity (as his young self asserts early on), presses his mother to speak.

This is a solemn and sad moment, but there is always a playful side. Both the young and the mature Arthur think we should not remember the lost Jews of the French Holocaust only for their deaths, but for their joys -- like, for instance, the day they first tasted Crème Chantilly. This is a wise and pleasant dream, and Arthur's self-abnegation is also an expression of cultural assimilation that's essential to France's unitary secular statehood. There's self-denial also in Baya's Algerian-born father (Zinedine Soualem), who devotes all his time to repairing people's appliances, refusing to be the artist that he always wanted to be. But this allows Arthur's father (the excellent Jacques Boudet) to communicate with him, when they both take apart an espresso machine, Jew and Arab bonding in the cause of making a good cup of coffee.

The Names of Love seems a little too silly sometimes, especially when it comes to Baya. But Sara Forestier is both winning and convincing in the role. This movie never loses its rhythm; it moves fast enough to keep the audience from questioning its quirkiness, and, a little paradoxically, since it has so many things to say, it doesn't feel like it's giving a lecture. This is the kind of stimulating, intelligent comedy the French are capable of, with a good heart, a clear head, and a naked lady. The best kind of comedy surely is the kind that makes you think: a serious comedy that nonetheless never stops being droll and even silly on the surface.

Le nom des gens was released in France July 10, 2010, in the US June 24, 2011. It opened in Bay Area theaters July 29.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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