Giving "Love" a Bad Name

A young seductress tries to convert right-wingers to advocate her lefty causes during pillow talk.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 17, 2011

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American films are typically so wary of addressing race, sex or politics in any fashion, it’s tempting to applaud French writer-director Michel Leclerc’s frothy button-pusher simply for existing. Penned with his longtime partner Baya Kasmi, this bluntly spoken, high-spirited oddity is a semi-autobiographical ode to true love amidst a mess of sad history lessons and ideological hang-ups. Matters of child sexual abuse, Algerian occupation and the Holocaust rarely come up so often within traditional romantic comedies. Watching Leclerc’s messy handling of the material one might wonder if there isn’t a good reason for that.

Jacques Gamblin, an older gentleman who looks sort of like what might happen if Thomas Haden Church starred in a David Cronenberg biopic, stars as Arthur Martin, an uptight avian flu expert who unfortunately has the same name as a popular kitchen appliance. (To Leclerc, this joke never gets old.) In the midst of offering one of his regular public health warnings after discovering a dead mallard, Arthur is accosted by the wild Baya Benhmamoud. Played by the effervescent actress Sara Forestier, who won the French equivalent of a Best Actress Oscar for her sparkling performance here, Baya is a flighty, half-Algerian 20-something activist, and right away we can tell she’s a free-spirit because her boobs keep spilling out of her blouse.

It’s not exactly love at first sight, but she does offer sex. Sadly, Arthur must decline because a deceased swan requires his attention on the other side of town. Baya’s happy-go-lucky approach to casual afternoon delights are explained, rather queasily, by her prepubescent molestation at the hands of a pedophile piano teacher. According to the movie’s most distasteful line of logic, victims of childhood sexual abuse often become promiscuous, so Baya has chosen to embrace what she considers a statistical inevitability and run wild. Kinda gross, ain’t it?

But at least she’s slutty with a purpose. Baya uses her bodacious bod to seduce right-wingers and convert them to advocating her lefty causes during pillow talk. A firm believer in the bumper-sticker slogan “Make Love, Not War,” she typically takes about 10 or so nights to turn around a rabid Nationalist, while bragging that centrists only require a single afternoon romp. Credit Forestier’s fizzy work for this all coming off as far more endearing than it has any right to. At times a ringer for Zooey Deschanel, she’s a delightful screen presence, somehow even selling the ridiculous moment in which our scatter-brained young heroine forgets to put on clothes before leaving her house, getting on the Metro buck naked.

A staunch lefty himself, Arthur would usually be excluded from Baya’s bedroom. Except she kind of likes the old fuddy-duddy, for reasons that remain slightly unclear. He eventually learns to cope with her extracurricular shenanigans and penchant for marrying illegal immigrants so they may stay in the country. Eventually, Arthur even confesses a family secret of his own. Turns out his maternal grandparents were deported to Auschwitz by the Vichy government. Leclerc handles this revelation with about as much tact as you’d expect from the picture, concocting an awkward dinner scene during which Baya accidentally keeps mentioning “camps” and “ovens” in front of her prospective in-laws. It’s like the “Germans are here, don’t bring up the war” sequence from Fawlty Towers, except without the funny parts.

To say that Leclerc admires Woody Allen would be a gross understatement. Characters in the film often converse with younger versions of themselves, a la Annie Hall. The May-September romance carries echoes of countless Allen pictures, and he even borrows Woody’s white font-black background opening credits, before plagiarizing Alvy’s and Annie’s lobster cooking sequence outright. (Credit where it’s due, Leclerc at least changes crustaceans. These are crabs.)

Obviously, this sounds like a train wreck. How many other pictures would dare set a romantic moment at a Shoah memorial? Yet The Names Of Love inspires a strange fascination, thanks mostly to Forestier’s bubbly, star-making performance and the film’s sometimes awe-inspiring indifference to matters of propriety or good taste. It just skips along with its relentlessly upbeat energy and romantic music cues, even when a supporting character commits suicide.

In a strange way, the film itself is sort of like Baya’s subway wardrobe malfunction, bounding along without a care in the world, blissfully unaware that others might be scandalized.

Grade: C-

Director: Michel Leclerc

Starring: Sara Forestier, Jacques Gamblin and Zinedine Soualem

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