A racy and racial French comedy, Michel Leclerc’s “The Names of Love” can be called many names, but “conventional” definitely isn’t one of them. That said, this wacky tale about a Jewish scientist who falls for a flamboyant and sexy Algerian (an ecstatic Sara Forestier) half his age is too giddy about its own nonconformism to keep the laughs going from start to finish. But as a sort of contempo satire, one that will appeal to Francophone auds or those obsessed with domestic Gallic issues, this Cannes Critics’ Week opener should raise eyebrows without really raising the roof.
If talking about politics is France’s national pastime, then arguing about them may be its No. 1 combat sport. For outspoken twentysomething Bahia Benmahmoud (Forestier) — the daughter of an Algerian refugee (Zinedine Soualem) and a bourgeois rebel girl (Carole Franck) — the fight has been taken to a whole different battleground: A self-proclaimed “political whore,” Bahia plans to sleep with as many right-wingers as possible and convert them (by whispering liberal mantras during coitus).
When the film kicks off, Bahia has stormed a radio talkshow to interrupt the ramblings of tight-lipped avian flu expert Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), a sheltered fortysomething whose maternal Greek-Jewish grandparents were killed in Auschwitz. Bahia jumps at the occasion to take Arthur to bed, this despite the fact that he’s a fervent supporter of the Socialist Party, and especially of fallen 2002 candidate Lionel Jospin (who, in one of the pic’s more trying moments, makes a bizarre cameo).
Though the romance seems improbable, first-timer Leclerc and co-scribe Baya Kasmi’s scenario explains that two characters whose families were afflicted by some of the worst disasters in recent French history (the Vichy regime for the Martins, the Algerian War for the Benmahmouds) are destined to form a perfect couple. And while Bahia’s desire to pursue her political goals tends to complicate (though only slightly) the new relationship, the real dilemma — as in any classic romantic comedy — is about how to get along with your in-laws.
To make things watchable, Leclerc employs a host of methods that includes flashbacks in black-and-white, soliloquies in which the characters address the camera, and visual gags that poke fun at the Martins’ backwards lifestyle. But just as his script overdoes itself in trying to cover such hot-button topics as head scarves and anti-Semitism, the bombardment of narrative techniques makes it feel as if the helmer is trying too hard to be outlandish, while never being consistently funny.
If there’s one effect that’s used to its fullest, it’s clearly Forestier. Or, more precisely, her body, since the young actress seems to play at least a quarter of her scenes topless and several others with nothing on but a pair of reading glasses. Luckily, she also revives the type of feisty street girl that marked her breakthrough performance in Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Games of Love and Chance,” and her machine-gun dialogue delivery provides a marked contrast to Gamblin’s (“Bellamy”) monotone academic muttering.
Secondary roles tend to feel more like caricatures, with the exception of Soualem’s excessively generous Mohamed, who serves as a smart reminder that not all Arabs are religious, nor are they in France only to bilk the system.