Film Review: The Names of Love

Semi-autobiographical drama from the improbable romance between a square, middle-aged French Jew and a fiery young “leftie” of North African descent is a cinematic descent into meandering self-indulgence and questionable taste.

The Names of Love arrives in the U.S. with promising laurels: Director Michel Leclerc and co-writer/life partner Baya Kasmi took the 2011 César Award for Best Original Screenplay, and the film’s young star, Sara Forestier, was named Best Actress. Forestier, whose character is seen either scantily or not at all dressed, bears (and bares) most of the film’s good news as she provides the lioness’ share of the film’s considerable sexual content. Audiences who like films with themes of obsession, politics, racial identity and discrimination may also be receptive.

The bad news is that these themes are ineptly, even insultingly handled in this autobiographical trifle. Baya (Forestier) is a twenty-something political activist and prostitute who only sleeps with right-wingers as part of her mantra to “make love, not war” and bring these targets over to the left. As least politically, Baya has understandable instincts, as she is the offspring of Cecile (Carole Franck), a French anti-colonialist, and Mohammed (Zinedine Soualem), the North African immigrant and Algerian War survivor she married.
There’s no “meet-cute” in Baya’s first encounters with middle-aged Arthur (Jacques Gamblin), a veterinarian who specializes in animal diseases without displaying any sympathy towards animals. She storms a radio station where he is being interviewed, and after another encounter insists they sleep together.

Arthur is very stuffy and conventional, characteristics which Baya apparently reads as “right-wing.” As the two get involved, they learn more about their parents’ troubled pasts. Arthur’s Jewish grandparents on his mother’s side were from Greece, resettled in France but soon got caught up in the Holocaust and Vichy France Nazi collaboration. Baya’s father Mohammed, although married to a Frenchwoman, has had to endure the hardships of an Arab starting over in France.

Predictably, the relationship between Baya, who was sexually abused by her supposed piano teacher, and Arthur is bumpy. As The Names of Love strives to make all of this interesting beyond bedrooms, it hops around between various time periods and fantasy sequences. (Scenes in which young Arthur hangs with the older Arthur don’t help matters.). It’s all haphazardly assembled, and lacking in heart or wit.