The Names of Love Dir. Michel Leclerc

[Music Box Films; 2011]

Styles: comedy
Others: A Man and a Woman, Potiche, J’invente rien

Although pointedly putting genres into conflict — specifically, the radical political film and the classic romantic comedy — would seem to point towards Jean-Luc Godard’s mid-60s Parisian period (Masculin-Feminin, Made in USA, Weekend: all polemic, anarchic movies playing against classic melodrama), Michel Leclerc’s bubbly/strident new The Names of Love, which mashes together exactly these genres, instead brings to mind the work of Claude Lelouch. Lelouch is the uber-commercial stylist who was fortunate enough to be associated with the daring genius of Godard and the rest of the New Wave despite being a representation of the system they were attempting to smash. Lelouch was lumped in with his generation’s great filmmakers mostly because of his age (he was seven years younger than Godard and five younger than Truffaut) and because, at a time when the New Wave was using popular actors to circumvent what they saw as a corrupt French studio system, Lelouch was putting those same actors into big studio films and shooting them in the New Wave style. He was hopping on the Godard/Truffaut bandwagon while making movies that undercut them. He and his slick progeny are still at it today.

Based off of The Names of Love, it seems obvious that Leclerc is a Lelouchian director in exactly this way. Like Lelouch, Leclerc is a far cry from the French rabble-rousers of his generation — that is, this generation: Leos Carax, Olivier Assayas, Gaspar Noe, Jacques Audiard, Xavier Beavois, all of whom have found distinctive ways to alter film form to shocking effect without coming across as imitators of the New Wave. Leclerc, about as old as all of them, wants to use his generation’s reputation for transgressive filmmaking to score hits and impress people with his fluid, imitative style and some self-consciously insouciant messaging. Like Lelouch, he employs some pseudo-New Wave film techniques (talking to the camera, playfully re-imagining history, free-form editing) and borrows heavily from Godardian (and Dardennes-ian) politics, before watering it all down to mix more palatably into his romantic comedy plots. In some sense, it’s a brave thing to make a movie for the masses with the strong undercurrent of a political stance. But when the balance tips heavily towards the romance and comedy, the smell of grandstanding can become overpowering.

The politics Leclerc is exploiting are neatly set up through a May-December love affair between a young half-Algerian arch-lefty, Baya (Sara Forestier), and a middle-aged half-Jewish liberal, Arthur (Jacques Gamblin). Baya is a sexpot whose life’s mission is seducing right wingers in order to control their minds: through sex, she aims to turn ultra-conservatives into free-spirit liberals like herself. She runs across Arthur the first day of her job fielding calls for a political talk radio show. Arthur, a zoologist working for the French government, is on the air explaining the dangers of possible bird flu contamination when Baya — believing him to be one of the “fascists” she so desperately detests — bursts into the studio and gives him a live verbal drubbing. Naturally, she is fired, and naturally, Arthur is taken with her. Initially accusing him of rampant right-wing-ism, Baya soon learns that Arthur is actually a supporter of Socialist Lionel Jospin. Her defenses lowered both by Arthur’s views and his silver-haired handsomeness, Baya owns up to her career as a “political whore.” He is thereafter devoted to her — she is young, nubile and frequently nude — and he takes on the job of scaling back her radical politics to make her a more manageable woman.

Somewhat at odds with the point of the movie is the title, which refers to the scrutiny and cultural confusion that both Baya and Arthur face as a result of the handles their parents gave them. Arthur’s last name is Martin. Much to his chagrin, it turns out that all of France associates the name “Arthur Martin” with a brand of kitchen appliances. He nevertheless feels it’s better for his professional life that his mother’s Jewishness was hidden when she took the name of his father, a gentile. Baya hides her roots for deeper reasons. Her last name is Benmahmoud, which she can use to throw her Arab half into the face of fascists whenever she needs to. But she is just as able to disguise her Algerian-ness: she looks and acts the part of ditzy, quirky, beautiful French waif.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Leclerc has Sara Forestier downplay Baya’s convictions to play her like a waif. Although Baya’s politics (the rights of French Algerians) are ostensibly both the center of her life and her main link with the man she comes to love, Leclerc is hardly interested in them. At times, he’s only interested in filming Forestier nude — her breasts tend to pop out in public, underscoring her free spirit, and sometimes she is so caught up in her thoughts that she forgets to put on clothes after bathing — a misstep she is in need of Arthur, ever loyal, to correct.

Possibly, Leclerc means to subtly poke fun at the misplaced rage of a girl whose father, a full-blooded Algerian, suffered actual racism when she grew up in sheltered comfort. Leclerc has certainly meant to make a movie that cleverly pokes fun at modern France’s increasingly mixed bag of ethnicities and political views, and the muck that people fall into trying to stick by their values. What he has actually made is a movie where politics are either derided outright or steamrolled over in favor of some well-worn gags. It takes a genius to treat politics seriously in a comedy. The Names of Love is proof that medium talent is all that’s required to throw a bit of comedy into a political movie.

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