Like a sugary candy with a tangy center, Michel Leclerc’s romantic comedy melds a tale about a mismatched couple—an effervescent young girl and a staid older man—with serious underpinnings. On the one hand, it’s like a French “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or “Annie Hall.” On the other, it’s imbued with themes about the Holocaust, illegal immigration and the right-left political divide. Surprisingly, Leclerc’s touch is nimble enough to make the unlikely mixture mostly work, though there are stumbles along the way.
The writer-director is fortunate in his cast, not just the leads but the supporting players. Sara Forestier is flighty, exuberant yet when the script calls for it poignant as Baya Benmahmoud, the beautiful daughter of an Algerian refugee (Zinedine Soualam) who yearns to be an artist but instead spends his time generously fixing things for people, and a left-wing French activist (Carole Franck) who devotes her life to fighting against the establishment for the poor and marginalized, taking no verbal prisoners in the process. Baya is the ultimate free-spirit. She may be so scatter-brained that she can actually forget to put on clothes before waltzing onto a commuter train, but she devotes herself to a most unusual political scheme: she sleeps indiscriminately with rightists, all of whom she dismisses as fascists, convinced that “making love, not war” is the path to reforming them.
In an altercation at a radio station she bumps heads with Arthur Martin (Jacques Gambin), an ornithologist who’s working for the government tracking signs of the spread of bird flu. He’s been molded into a rigidly-controlled family, with a mother (Michele Moretti) who’s never spoken of the fact that she escaped capture when her Greek-born Jewish parents were sent to Auschwitz during the Vichy regime and a father (Jacques Boudet) who works in the nuclear power industry and tries to avoid any unpleasant political discussion. And before long Baya and Arthur are in bed together.
Although Arthur is politically on the left, a supporter of socialist Lionel Jospin, the duo are both totally dissimilar and clearly meant for one another, and Leclerc follows the development of their relationship through good times and bad. Along the way there are very funny moments—a montage in which the Martins embrace every technological device that proves to be a failure (like a Betamax VCR) is hilarious—as well as others that are emotionally complex or simply sad. And Leclerc sometimes opts for overly cute devices to make his points—like having the younger version of Arthur occasionally pop up to have a conversation with his older self. He even mimics Marshall McLuhan’s famous cameo in “Hall” by having Baya invite Jospin to an amusing family dinner as a surprise for Arthur, though frankly the scene sounds better than it plays.
It will come as no surprise at all, however, that Baya and Arthur eventually wind up together—after the obligatory last-act break-up, of course. “The Names of Love” is noteworthy for Forestier’s eye-catching performance, comparable to Audrey Tautou’s in “Amelie.” But it’s even more so for wrapping a message about overcoming ethnic and political differences in the trappings of a conventional romantic comedy, and being largely successful at such a tricky task.