Monday, June 20, 2011

Leclerc’s Names of Love

Despite his position as the sitting French Prime Minister, Socialist Lionel Jospin suffered the indignity of finishing third behind his arch-rival Jacques Chirac and notorious firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential election. Yet, animal pathologist Arthur Martin even more closely identified with the famous loser, as a result. However, Martin’s temperament is quite conservative, making him an apparently unlikely match for the free-spirited Baya Benmahmoud in Michel Leclerc’s The Names of Love, which opens this Friday in New York.

Martin’s Jewish mother survived the Holocaust, but never discussed the experience. Instead, she became Frencher than French, marrying outside her faith. Nevertheless, that which the Martins never spoke of, always hovers over their heads. Half-Algerian and all radical, Benmahmoud could not be more dissimilar. She will talk about anything, with great passion, but anyone who might disagree with her she labels a fascist. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. She is determined to use her feminine allure to convert any man to the right of Jospin.

Despite his socialist voting record, Martin’s respect for authority and buttoned-down reserve are sufficient to attract her attention. The namesake of a famous French appliance line, Martin grew up with the jokes an Oscar Meyer might hear in America. He now works with dead things. Naturally, his kind-of sort-of affair with Benmahmoud greatly upsets his scrupulously ordered life.

Though much of Names’ humor is political in nature, Leclerc and Baya Kasmi’s screenplay is never over politicized, which is quite a neat trick. In fact, viewers across the ideological spectrum should be able to appreciate its clever appeal. It also adroitly touches on some sensitive issues, like the Holocaust and the sexual abuse Benmahmoud suffered as a child, without deflating the film’s light and sweet overall mood. Despite an obvious affection for the French left, Names, through the ever level-headed Martin, offers a few correctives to Benmahmoud’s own extremism along the way.

As Martin, the perfectly cast Jacques Gamblin makes boring surprisingly interesting. Highly camera-friendly, Sara Forestier finds the charm in Benmahmoud’s ditziness. Together they develop genuine romantic and comedic chemistry, totally selling their stormy courtship. Adding further dimension, the restrained pathos of Michelle Moretti’s Madame Martin brings real heft to the film.

With a clear stylistic debt to Woody Allen, Names draws on not just politics, but religion and ethnicity as sources for its gentle laughter. Even Martin’s beloved Jospin makes a cameo as himself, (though not quite in as dramatic fashion as Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall). Droll and endearing, Names is one of the smartest and richest romantic comedies of the year. Recommended for general audiences, it opens this Friday (6/24) in New York at the Paris and Landmark Sunshine theaters.