Directed by Michel Leclerc. Written by Baya Kasmi and Leclerc. Starring Sara Forestier, Jacques Gamblin, Carole Franck, Zinedine Soualem and Michelle Moretti. Running time: 95 minutes. Not rated.
Just when you think writer-director Michel Leclerc's frothy and frisky comedy might actually have something to say, it does something really stupid — like sending the adorably sexy Sara Forestier out of the house and onto the Metro stark naked because she forgot to get dressed. How wacky! How French! How insufferably moronic. For every smart or clever move The Names of Love makes, there's an equally idiotic attempt to be hysterically outré.
Forestier is Baya Benmahmoud, a French-Algerian wild child and passionate liberal who has channeled the tragedies of her childhood into an audacious mission: to seduce right-wing men in order to cure them of their fascistic tendencies. In a chance encounter she meets Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), a serious and stuffy middle-aged government veterinarian who tracks signs of the spread of bird flu. Needless to say, opposites attract. Eventually Baya discovers that though Arthur is the only child of rigid and tight-lipped parents, his grandparents were rounded up by the Vichy government and sent to Auschwitz. This knowledge convinces her that their casual and quirky relationship was predestined, a statement that the only path to world peace is to mix ethnicities so completely that racial and political labels become meaningless. Unfortunately, her brazen and often exasperating behavior threatens to unwind Arthur's carefully constructed life.
The Names of Love is undeniably high-spirited and ambitious in scope, playing like the cinematic offspring of Breakfast at Tiffany's and Annie Hall. And it earns points for trying to mix social commentary with oddball comedy, daring to tackle political issues that Hollywood rom-coms wouldn't dare to touch. Co-written with Baya Kasmi, Leclerc's partner, the effort may be based on their own cross-cultural romance, but the approach is scattershot and borderline offensive, with riffs on anti-Arab prejudice and anti-Semitism that never rise above political gimmick. It's commendable to want to mix serious ideas and emotional complexity into a light comedy, but you need to have a point that goes deeper than "bigotry is bad."
For comedy, Leclerc relies on the kinds of shtick that made Woody Allen's early career pop, and the results are decidedly mixed. There are adult-narrated flashbacks to childhood, a drop-in cameo by socialist Lionel Jospin, Arthur consulting with his teenage self, imaginary Greek-speaking, hookah-smoking grandparents and, in the film's best joke, the courtship of Arthur's parents is re-enacted by an attractive young woman as his mom and an old man as his pop (because Arthur can't imagine him any other way). But even Woody knew that pedophilia, racial oppression and the Holocaust make for questionable comedic subject matter. There are small sprinkles of daring that come close to working — as when high school-aged Arthur tries to use his family's Holocaust past to score with politically sensitive girls — but Leclerc lacks the fortitude to fully explore the possibilities and his joke flounders.
Ultimately, what makes The Names of Love's mishmash of impulses and ideas tolerable is Forestier, who delivers an exuberant tour de force of comic acting. Energetic and alert, she even makes Baya's casual exhibitionism (there's plenty of boobs and bush to go around) feel organic to her dotty-but-determined neo-hippie. Still, it's hard to imagine any actress with enough charm and pluck to overcome a film that mixes madcap nudie jokes with child molestation.
Opens Friday, Aug. 26, at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
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