Playfully provocative and boasting a star-making turn from Sara Forestier, The Names of Love addresses the volatile issue of European assimilation and multiculturalism, but in a tone and tenor full of screwball whimsy.
And so, the specter of the Holocaust and the brutal oppression of Algerians by French colonialists - not to mention the raging debate over Muslim identity - are presented as subjects to make us laugh as well as shed tears. That's a tricky thing to pull off, but director Michel Leclerc and his cowriter, Baya Kasmi, do it deftly, with charm.
Forestier is Baya Benmahmoud, the daughter of a wealthy lefty Frenchwoman and an Algerian immigrant artist. She's a free spirit, she's lovely, and she's a ditz - her inability to focus on one task at a time results in her leaving her apartment sans clothes, blissfully unaware that she's standing on the Metro platform in boots and nothing else. (I know, I know, this is too cute, but hey.)
And then one day she meets Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin). On the face of it, this mild-mannered epidemiologist is the stereotypical stuffy Frenchman, steeped in generations of galling Gallic tradition. But, in fact, Arthur's mother was a Jew, hidden in an orphanage during the war while her parents were carted off to the death camps. He, too, isn't so easy to read, to pigeonhole.
The Names of Love (the original French title translates, more aptly, to The Names of People) is a love story, and a farce. It asks us to consider the politics of nationalism, the politics of inclusion, the politics of sex, and the impolitic prejudices that most of us are guilty of harboring.
The solution may not be as simple as Baya's hippie creed - "make love, not war" - but it's nice to dream.