“The Names of Love” is a fantastic French romantic dramedy about two clashing lovers

“The Names of Love” (« Les noms des gens » in French) is a story, from director Michel Leclerc, that one could easily say is “so French.”  It pits Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier), a 20-something, hypersexual, left-winger, born of an Algerian dad, against Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) a middle-aged healthcare professional born of a Jewish mom.  They clash politically and ideologically.  But they face an undeniable chemistry despite occasionally rational thought.

This shows at the Edina Cinema for a week from August 26th.

Baya Benmahmood (Sara Forestier) is a lefty charmer in “The Names of Love” (courtesy Music Box Films)

Still each tries to be rational because they don’t know how they could be together and not go nuts, or kill each other, if not both!  Arthur is the story’s star, but also Baya’s milquetoast straight man in this fantastic, joyous and hilarious story.

The first scene is indelible.  Arthur is on-air on the radio in the middle of discussing bird flu on a call-in show.  Baya shows up at the station for work, screening the show’s calls.  Finding his ideas dangerous, she abandons her cube and barges into the studio, and then calls Arthur out, with animated zeal.

The story follows this clashing couple’s relationship from accidental meetings to intentional ones and the milestones.  Their romance’s absurd comedy feels like a smart version of Abbott & Costello.

After that auspicious beginning they go to an eatery where Baya offers Arthur sex on the first date – that’s her policy.  She strikes him dumb and speechless, and he flees the awkwardness and opportunity.  His daily luck with women?  Let’s put this way: to steal a line from The Prince of Tides: “he had the opposite of the Midas touch!”

Baya meets Arthur’s conservative parents in “The Names of Love” (courtesy Music Box Films))

The first act’s mania and hilarity follow the first sequence’s lead: Baya and Arthur each tells us how they were brought up and by what sort of parents.  Arthur’s memory plays games on him, and in-turn on the story.  For example: he can’t imagine his dad when he was young.  No matter how young he should be in his son’s flashback, like as a college freshman, instead he looks like a retiree, and loopily out-of-place.  It’s often hilarious.  It works.  With Baya, there’s less drama.  Her mom was a daughter of middle-class privilege who rebelled, eventually loving an Algerian, a former soldier.  Her memory plays tricks in different, subtler ways.

Her sexual conduct and attitude has a political agenda.  She lives by the creed “make love, not war.”  She uses it as a weapon, as another prong of rhetoric.  Kind of like a one-off from Carl VonClausewitz’s “On War:” a continuation of political struggle by erotic or erotic and rhetorical means.  She uses her erotic and sensual skills to convert her conservative foes to her way of seeing.

Strolling in “The Names of Love” (courtesy Music Box Films)

“The Names of Love” provides a bounty of charming, witty, amusing characters, scenes and sequences and touches of technique.  And these at such a quick pace that we’re swept up.  It is a profound gem in how it can make a viewer smile, chuckle and then guffaw.

In other important scenes, the camera plays with point of view. This works some subtly potent wonders; it shows a two-shot of a couple, that makes sense, and then pans to reveal a third wheel that changes the scene’s meaning entirely.

Because of temporary “lessons” with her piano teacher as a child, which are subtly played out, the college-aged Baya holds none of a common sexual or erotic conservatism that’s familiar to most Americans.  If a tit peaks or bounds out of her often loose blouse by accident, it’s a non-event to her.

In one of the many memorable sequences, she and Martin accidentally meet each other at a polling place.  There, she offers him sex again.  On the way to that, they stop at a grocery.  In line, she flees to find the last vital ingredient to a pre-coital meal, coriander.

And then her scattered brain goes full-tilt: she runs into someone.  He reminds her to make a 180 degree change in plans.  Not to return to Arthur, but instead to prepare for a party.  She goes home to collect something, strips, forgets to dress, and then leaves home to take care of yet another scatterbrained errand.  On the way, she passes that market, which she just fled, naked save for boots.  Arthur, incredulous, sees her.  He’s still waiting for her inside.  This concisely summarizes the movie’s looniness and charms.

Baya and Arthur charm each other in “The Names of Love” (courtesy Music Box Films)

La pièce de résistance: before the mania of that sequence ends, Baya winds up on a train flashing a Muslim couple the female half of which is dressed in what is almost a burqa.

This witty, funny, often hilarious film will suit you whether or not you want to think; it provides an intelligent escape.  The romance’s common peaks and valleys are drawn with great gaiety.

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