Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Names of Love (Le nom de gens)

Holy cow. A French movie about a coupla French socialists. How the Hell do I sell this to The Boy?

Popcorn. Lots of popcorn.

The Names of Love is one of those quirky movies that only the French can make and—unlike so many things they do—can make completely unselfconsciously. It's so backward from an American point-of-view you can't help but be a little charmed and a little, like, "Hey! I thought these guys were sophisticates!"

Here's the story: Buttoned-up Arthur Martin, Parisian dead fowl investigator, is chided by "liberated" (read slutty) Baya Benmahmoud during a radio show where he's warning against bird flu. She says, astutely, "You're making us all crazy with your panicky talk" or something of that sort. Arthur, for his part, says stuff like "We must be constantly vigilant, but not too alarmed" and other very official, meaningless things.

After rejecting Baya's offer of sex (she only sleeps with men on the first date) the two part ways, only to meet up again on another occasion. This time Arthur takes her up on her offer, but they split for a minute, which is long enough for Baya to become completely disoriented, caught up in three other obligations, and wandering the street naked.

Arthur rescues her and they become a sort of item. We learn that Baya is a committed socialist who targets right wingers and converts them from their wicked ways by having sex with them.

I know, right? French!

Arthur is different, of course, or we wouldn't have a movie. Arthur is already a committed socialist and the two share a love of Lionel Jospin, the socialist candidate beaten in 2002 by (right wing) Jacques Chirac. ("Right wing" in France means "not completely committed to the total control of the economy in all its facets by the government", I gather.)

Actually, in some ways, this movie is thematically a lot like the last movie we saw, Beginners. Arthur and Baya are sorta messed up in their own ways that go back to their parents. But in this case, the problems seem to be cultural. Baya is the daughter of an Algerian solder and a hippie mother, while Arthur's Jewish mother escaped concentration camps in WWII.  Arthur's paternal grandparents, on the other hand, were actually deported from France back to Greece.

Given the Martins' policy of never talking about anything, we don't learn anything else about the Greek grandparents.

At one point, Arthur realizes he can attract the girls with stories of his grandparents' persecution, but it makes him feel unclean to do so, and he simply stops talking about it at all. Baya, on the other hand, regrets that she hasn't experienced the persecution that is her due, as a half-Algerian.

At this point, it's hard to regard the French as anything but a sort of naive, muddled provincials. I mean, seriously, Arthur and Baya are riddled with angst over questions of birth that would register a shrug in the United States! Can you imagine an entire modern American movie based around a mixed couple? Didn't we do all those in the '70s?

But I digress. It's still an issue for the French, apparently.

One of the cutest moments is when Arthur confesses to Baya that he thinks, right or left, political parties tend to do bad things. Baya cannot absorb it. If it's true, she reasons, nothing makes any sense at all. The left is good, the right is bad, she asserts existentially. (I don't know if that's the right word, but it should be.)

The murkiness doesn't end with politics and race, though. Sex is an issue, too, of course. Baya is "liberated", in Martin's words. Maybe even "too liberated". Of course, she's not "liberated" at all: She's a slut. And nuts. She was molested as a child—French comedy, remember—which would seem to cast doubt on the whole sexual free spirit stuff.

And maybe this kind of muddled messaging is why the whole movie works. Director Michel Leclerc doesn't try to assert the rightness of any of it. A lot of it is played for laughs, thought always with a gentle touch and empathy for the characters. The movie suggests that, somehow, the characters will survive the success of such right-wing heavies as Chirac and (gasp!) Sarkozy.

And maybe, just maybe, a whole lot of fuss is being made about politics and race and freeing crabs (you'll understand when you see it) that pales next to the business of actually living and loving.

Which also seems very French.

Leclerc co-wrote the script with Baya Kasmi whose name and appearance evokes that of the Baya Benmahmoud of the movie, suggesting some autobiography here.

The cast is excellent, but unless you're an afficianado of French film you probably don't know these guys. I see more French flicks than most, but I couldn't place Jacques Gamblin (who plays Arthur) and Sarah Forestier looked really familiar but I think the only movie I've seen her in is the unusual Perfume: The Story of a Murder. Zinedine Soualem, who plays Baya's dad, was in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Michele Moretti (Martin's mom) played a role in the enjoyable Apres Vous.

But that probably doesn't mean much to you. There are typically 2-3 French films a year I get to, so unless someone's having a very good year, I'm probably not going to see them enough to be able to recognize them. And all the hot stars from 5 or so years ago aren't getting into movies that make it out here very much.

C'est la vie, eh?

Anyway, worked for me. Worked for the Boy, even with the odds stacked against it. Pretty good recommendation, overall.


  1. I just finished a hunter safety course with my son taught by a guy who reminded me of Trooper York. Why did I say that and why am I putting that here?

    Well he told a funny joke about the French when showing us his bullet collection. He had them arranged according size-cartridges (he pronounced cah-tri-ges in his dialect). The smallest was a teeny-tiny 3mm caliber bullet. Someone asked what is was from and why it was so small. He said "some French know those Frenchies, they don't like to kill anything" he explained.

  2. Not to be pedantic but shouldn't it be "Les noms de gens?"

    I know just enough French to recall that articles always agree in number and gender.

    "The Names of Love" would translate to Les Noms d'amour"

    and "Les Noms de gens" would translated back to "The names of people."

    Paging the commenter formally known as Theo Boehm, or better, vbspurs.

  3. Actually, I think it's correctly "Le nom de gens" but it's mis-spelled all over the place.

    Literally "The name of people."

    You can see why they changed it.


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