In “The Names of Love,” writer-director Michel Leclerc employs a deft, whimsical touch in bringing together such weighty themes as family guilt, generational regret and finding true love in a world mined with racial and cultural politics. It’s a delicate tightrope that co-writers and Leclerc and Baya Kasmi walk but, in presenting issues of their own personal experiences as ethnic minorities in their native France, their screenplay is refreshingly honest and inventive. And considering that “The Names of Love” really has very little plot driving it, Leclrec and Kasmi create an engaging romantic comedy simply by virtue of their offbeat humor and appealing characters.
Family history is central to understanding this movie about mismatched lovers. Arthur (Jacques Gamblin), an epidemiologist who specializes in bird autopsies, is the son of Jewish mother, Annette (Michèle Moretti), a Holocaust survivor still haunted by the long-ago disappearance of her parents. Meanwhile, sexual spitfire Bahia (Sara Forestier) – who sleeps with right-wing men in order to convert them to her left-wing causes – springs from the union between an Algerian immigrant-father, Mohamed (Zinedine Soualem), and a liberally minded French hippie-mom Cécile (Carole Franck).
Both Arthur and Bahia have struggled with personal identity issues their whole lives – Arthur with the ripple effects of his mother’s guilt and Bahia with wanting to honor the struggles and social discrimination suffered by her hardworking father, a brilliant but self-effacing painter. It’s what made Arthur and Bahia who they are: While Bahia is a politically righteous, sexually charged dynamo, Arthur’s childhood pains have turned him into a stuffed-shirt who takes comfort in his job’s scientific predictabilities – though, in a refreshing twist, Arthur isn’t one of Bahia’s right-wing conquests; he’s a liberal socialist, the rational yin to Bahia’s volatile yang.
The description so far of “The Names of Love” may have the ring of a heavy Bergman-esque drama, but Leclerc’s movie is anything but. Kasmi and Leclrec’s plot goes through a wild array of witty conversations and slapstick set-ups, weaving these into a fabric of memories through with Bahia and Arthur each try to make sense of their past, how they became who they are, and, ultimately, why the two of them are so drawn to each other.
Gamblin and Forestier are both excellent in their disparate roles. Utterly natural as the buttoned-down yet easily flappable Arthur, Gamblin provides the perfect chemistry for Forestier’s spontaneous Bahia, given to political indignation and lots of nude shenanigans (including a scene in which she absent-mindedly leaves her apartment and hops on the subway, wearing nothing but her glasses). The supporting players, particularly Soualem and Moretti, are solid, providing Leclerc’s comedy with grace notes of soulfulness and pathos.
It’s a credit to the talents of his cast as well as to Leclerc’s ability to juggle comedy and drama that “The Names of Love” manages to be so winning a concoction. Moreover, what its script lacks in forward momentum, the movie makes up for with its sincere interest in human nature, its sense of fun and cinematic style as it jumps back and forth between the past and present to create a heartfelt homage to how love can truly bridge all our differences.
Directed by: Michel Leclerc
Written by: Michel Leclerc, Baya Kasmi
Starring: Jacques Gamblin, Sara Forestier, Zinedine Soualem, Carole Franck, Jacques Boudet, Michèle Moretti, Zakariya Gouram, Julia Vaidis-Bogard