A romantic comedy about far more than romance, The Names of Love is intimately concerned with history, identity, and what it means to be a political being in contemporary France. Chockfull of ideas in a way that’s both scattershot and more than a little exciting, Michel Leclerc’s film nonetheless ladles out its laughs less consistently than one might wish, placing at its center a rather dubious conceit. Both committed to a knee-jerk leftism (the inheritance of her Algerian immigrant father and anti-imperialist French mother) and to open sexual congress (which she develops as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy after being sexually abused as a child), Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) takes to fucking right-wing men in order to convert them to her political side. Meeting the older, reserved Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), Baya takes him for her next object. He’s no right-winger, though, as he always votes socialist, but the two soon develop a relationship that goes well beyond ideologically contested sex.
As a comedy, The Names of Love is a film that uses edgy, often uncomfortable humor to address issues of both personal and historical import. For example, late in the film when Baya meets Arthur’s parents, her efforts to not address her boyfriend’s mother’s past as a Holocaust survivor results in her inadvertently dropping such words as “camp” and “oven” into casual conversation, allowing the film to suggest the impossibility of evading one’s past. But if Arthur’s family chooses to ignore their particular family tragedy, Baya’s relatives embrace their legacy of being survivors of France’s murderous occupation of Algeria, using it to fuel their political activism. Nonetheless, they have their own taboo subject (their daughter’s childhood rape), and just as both Arthur and his family never mention the Shoah (or even their Jewishness), Baya and her parents ignore her own horrific past.
In the film, however, personal history can’t be so easily shuttled aside, and so Leclerc and his co-screenwriter Baya Kasmi use their female lead’s sexuality to address the legacy of her childhood abuse. Her breasts continually popping out of her low-cut blouses, her lithe body shown frequently nude, the young woman is presented as an insistently erotic being. In one sense, her life’s mission of political conversion can be seen as a way of reclaiming the sexuality that was stolen from her at an early age by asserting agency over her body and using it for a constructive social purpose. At the same time, by making her so insistently sexualized (she’s so free with her body that, in one scene, she forgets to put on clothes and tramps around Paris in the raw), the filmmakers threaten to undermine that agency and reveal her ideologically based fucking as a strained, rather juvenile conceit that’s less empowering than humiliating.
Leclerc’s film is a hodgepodge of both modes of humor and ideas, a mix that, while not always successful, is frequently fascinating. In dealing with such questions as assimilation versus communitarianism, what it means to be French, and a person’s proper relationship with his or her past, the filmmakers draw on a range of comic devices. Opening with alternating shots of each character explicating their family history, the film allows the pair to “enter” these recovered memories, inserting their present-day selves Annie Hall-style as they interact with the characters in flashback or comment on the proceedings through the benefit of hindsight While these sequences occasionally yield laughs, they too often feel more derivative than freshly imagined. They fare at least as well, though, as the broad, if affectionate, satire of Baya’s unthinking liberalism that permeates the film.
Fortunately, this attitude in the female lead is countered by her co-star’s more nuanced understanding of the role of political activism. Together the two outlooks form a dialectic between headlong action and measured reflection as a means of responsible citizenship. And it’s an indication of the film’s generous ambitions that the complexities of its several pressing questions are never underplayed, even if they’re often rendered ridiculous for comedic purposes. Still, this last strategy would almost certainly prove more palatable if the film were consistently funnier.