The key word in the English title, “The Names of Love,” is “Names.” Your surname is your connection to your roots in this French comedy/romance.
R for sexual content including graphic nudity, and some language
Past is Prologue
Baya Benmahmoud’s (Sara Forestier) father was an Algerian émigré who came to France; her mother was a rebellious hippy who thought that marrying an Algerian was the perfect liberal statement. Her family’s deep, dark secret is that her piano teacher molested her. She says she’s the only person in France with her name.
Arthur Martin’s (Jacques Gamblin) mother was a Jewish orphan of WWII, and his father was a solid, French citizen. His family’s deep, dark secret is their family identity. Neither of them ever discussed their parents with Arthur. He says he has one of the most common names in France.
The film doesn’t make any profound statements about family, but the topic makes for some funny, chaotic storytelling as each character introduces their family (including their younger selves) in flashback.
Rambling and Musing
The comedy is light and deft. It’s very French, with a casual attitude toward sex (including a light handling of child molestation which may turn off some Americans). The color palette is generally bright and the film itself is lively and bubbly.
It’s a film about characters rather than plot, and the characters are drawn fancifully and colorfully. Baya, for example, is unstoppably enthusiastic and very sexual. She sees her life’s work as sleeping with the enemy. The enemy, in her case, is anyone from the right wing (she inherited her mother’s liberalism). By sleeping with conservative men and whispering sweet Marxist nothings during sex, she seeks to convert as many of them as possible.
As for Arthur, he’s comically dry without being desiccated. He’s a veterinarian specializing in bird flu — or presumably whatever avian pandemic is on the rise at the moment. He takes his job seriously and wants the public to be cautious. You get the sense that when people make fun of him, he probably doesn’t even realize it. Smartly dressed in a gray suit, he allows a splash of purple to prove he’s not completely humorless.
The Names of Love doesn’t have a well-defined story arc. Instead, it has musings and ramblings. The first quarter of the film focuses on the characters’ back stories. Eventually we meet the characters’ parents. There are conversations about sex and politics. There are fallings-out and fallings-back-in.
By the end, the film has settled on personal genealogy as its goal, with Arthur coming to terms with his unknown grandparents and Baya embracing her mixed heritage. They decide not to let the past dictate their present trajectories. I’m not sure that’s what the film had in mind when it started: maybe the movie won’t stand up to direct scrutiny very well. But as an entertainment, it works. It is effervescent, with enough energy and with likeable enough characters to keep you smiling for 100 minutes.