“Only the French.” These are the words that scamper through my head as I sit down to write about The Names of Love. Only the French could take a premise that sounds for all the world like Dharma & Greg: The Movie and instead make a drop dead sexy comedy about generational divides and multiculturalism. Only the French could make a movie with gags involving full frontal female nudity on a subway and then find a way to incorporate the holocaust. At least, only the French seem to get away with it. It’s hard to imagine a Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston movie about an introverted conservative who falls in love with a brash liberal that would carry such a bold agenda. And it’s harder still to imagine an American director who could pull it off. Well, maybe Woody Allen.
Woody Allen, perhaps the most underappreciated great American director, appears to have had a profound influence on Michel Leclerc’s film. That’s an observation that’s easy to make on its own, and I’m glad that Leclerc has openly admitted as much. While superficial Allen elements like appearing in one’s own flashbacks or even meaningful romantic moments involving live crustaceans make an appearance in The Names of Love, what Leclerc has mercifully imported from Allen’s work best is his sense of meaning. Relationships that most romantic comedies would boil down to classic archetypes or worse, clichés, have a basis in social history and personal tragedy. The interactions between a small group of people, two lovers in particular, are all informed by not just their own experiences but those of their parents and their parents before them. Each interaction is both a thing in itself as well as the direct result of generations of love and pain alongside the gradual process of mixed breeding.
Jacques Gamblin plays Arthur Martin, a vaguely conservative individual who meets the love of his life in Bahia Benmahmoud after she breaks into a live radio broadcast to call him out on his ‘safe’ views on national health following the Bird Flu scare. Arthur is enthralled by this young woman. Anyone would be. Played by Perfume’s Sara Forestier, Bahia is one of the most rapturous female characters in years. Filled with joy, sculpted from pain, she’s taken to seducing her political opponents in order to make them more susceptible to changing their views. Her attempts to seduce Arthur, she is surprised to learn, are based not on politics but on genuine romantic interest. The pair become lovers despite their troubled histories. Arthur’s family is emotionally stagnant in an effort to ignore his mother’s history in the holocaust, and Sara’s family is still reeling from her father’s life in the Algerian occupation as well as Sara’s own tragic past of sexual molestation.
This is a happy comedy, by the way. And sexy, too. Leclerc masterfully combines the seriousness of life in uncertain times with romantic comedy conventions, crafting a unique jewel in a genre currently offering only cheap rhinestones. Characters do not behave according to romantic comedy conventions, freeing them to be complicated individuals with conflicting desires and motivations that would normally have no place in light entertainment. Arthur refuses to discuss his the loss of his grandparents as Auschwitz not because it’s too painful, necessarily, but because it inevitably makes everyone like him more. Feeling that he’s capitalizing on his family’s pain, he keeps it to himself even though withholding crucial information about his personality keeps Arthur and Bahia at a distance. But then again, she doesn’t want to tell him about her perverse piano teacher either. They don’t want to ruin their pleasure by sharing their pain, not realizing that this lack of intimacy is in fact destroying them from within.
The deft balance of comedy and tragedy is a tricky thing. I haven’t managed it in this review, making The Names of Love appear heavier than it really is. Matthew Leclerc’s new film juggles drama and silliness in a way that I think would make Woody Allen proud. The joy of the film is never undermined by the seriousness of its subject matter, and what joy it is. Sexy, frequently hilarious and unafraid to be daring, The Names of Love is a superlative romantic comedy.
Crave Online Rating: 8.5/10