‘The Names of Love’ sacrifices theme for quirk

August 18, 2011

The Names of Love (Le nom des gens) is a film so obsessed with being cutesy it drowns out its message in an overreaching arc of idealism that not only seems implausible but dilutes its message. Despite its Euro-centric story and humor, Michel Leclerc’s movie about politics and love still seems to try to appeal to a world audience, as imported Stateside by Music Box Films.

The zany odd couple comedy opens with a near half-hour flashback of the two main characters, the free-spirited 20-something Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) and the repressed, straight-laced 50-something Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin). As they recount their family heritage, Baya’s mixed background of French and Algerian and Arthur’s French/Jewish parents, the film recounts life-defining moments in quick vignettes over the course of nearly a half-hour that recalls Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie but with less visual punch.

The film follows the growing affections between Baya and Arthur, who also happens to share his name with a small, popular “cooker.” It’s that kind of joke that hints at the distinctly European humor of this film. The Francophiles will indeed love it, as the film does not wholly pander to an American audience and maintains a keen focus on the dynamics of foreign influence on that nation through history. Both the repercussions of the German occupation of World War II and France’s own brutal involvement in the Algerian War define Arthur and Baya, respectively.

Through the dynamics of these characters fumbling their way through life in France, the Names of Love explores the country’s complicated history under Nazi oppression and its complicity with concentration camps, not to mention its militaristic hold on Algiers. Riding in the wake are these two battered souls, Baya and Arthur, who not only have their cultural history to deal with but also their own personal childhood traumas. The director lightens the load through the characters’ own zany way of dealing with their pains. Baya calls herself a “political whore” on a mission to convert fascists, one man at a time, with sex. Meanwhile, Arthur only finds a purpose in life by conducting necropsies on dead birds in search of potential disease that can lead to mass outbreaks.

I can appreciate a good foreign comedy that rails against fascism. Fellini did it the best in many of his films, and the Tin Drum was as serious a surreal serio-comedy against the idea of fascism as it comes. But such films also prove what a difficult line Leclerc has chosen to walk. When Arthur points out that Baya has a “broad idea of fascism,” it calls both her credibility into question as well as the film’s.

A problem inherit in the story is the fact that both characters are ultimately victims of oppressors, so you cannot get grand statements from the chemistry between the two, which the film seems to focus on. In Arthur, Baya is not flirting with a fascist, just another victim dealing with his pain in a different way. So what should be at stake in her fascist-converting mission quickly becomes unimportant to the main story. When she does finally make good on her plan in the story, toward the very end of the film, it is handled in such a contrived, over-the-top manner that it turns out offering little to the whole of the movie.

The actors do the best they can with the flighty script. Gamblin plays the quiet suffering clown with soft-spoken subtlety, haunted by the missed opportunities of his younger self who occasionally materializes via a chastising Adrien Stoclet, in a very Woody Allen-esque flourish. Meanwhile, Forestier plays the explosive Baya with a frentic quality. You can almost see her not stopping to think before she acts in her eyes alone. They are, however, caricatures that are not totally unfamiliar from the denizens of many zany European comedies before the Names of Love. The layer of perky, classic slapstick music of plucky strings and loopy clarinet and violin, added to the happenings forces the clichés harder down the audience’s throat than necessary.

A little more restraint could have gone a long way to benefit the story, but also some attention to consistency of characters. The final 10 minutes especially has this tight, tacked on feeling like the worst of Frankenstein crowd-pleasing Hollywood-fare. What the movie spends most of its time treating as a complex relationship is so neatly packed away, with such lightweight humor, it only does a disservice to everything that came before.

Names of Love is Rated R and opens tomorrow in the South Florida area. It will screen in the Miami area at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Intracoastal 8 in North Miami Beach and in Broward County at the Sunrise Eleven. On Sept. 2 it will continue playing in the Miami area at the Tower Theater.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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