It’s important to note that the original French title of the foreign import “The Names of Love,” which opens Friday in South Florida, is in fact “The Names
of People.” In a sense, both titles are appropriate, and both tend to say something about the film cultures surrounding them. That former title sounds like a Harlequin paperback, which, in its lesser moments, the film aspires to be. “The Names of People,” on the other hand, relates to the movie’s considerable intellectual bent. In its romance between a distinctly named everyday Frenchman of Jewish heritage named Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) and a distinctly named Frenchwoman of Arab heritage, Baya Menmahmoud (Sara Forestier), names mean a lot.
Whatever you want to call this movie, one of its major themes is liberation from the roles society, backgrounds, cultures and, yes, names, proscribe to us. Its romantic leads exist in a nebulous, post-racial world, aware of the hardships their ancestors fought for to defend their otherness while operating, themselves, at a quasi-comfortable remove.
It would’ve been nice if this fascinating character thread were the main focus of “The Names of Love,” the third feature from director Michel Leclerc. This uneven cocktail of politics, sex and comedy would be considered risqué by the conservative standards of America’s MPAA but could probably be shown on network television in France. That said, it’s still pretty eye-opening to see Forestier flit around the city with no clothes on (her character is dotty and ADD enough to forget that she’s naked) or even to bare all in her own home, and under Leclerc’s camera, in a graphic extended scene.
But the film’s uniqueness is too often swallowed by a romcom formula suggestive of Cameron Crowe’s more odious flights of gooey-eyed fancy. In the opening scene, Baya, a call screener at a radio station, has an unlikely meet-cute with Arthur, an expert on spreadable diseases in animals, by bursting into his on-air interview because she’s fed up with the stupid questions she has to field from callers. She continues to pursue him for the sole purpose of sex, though he’s not really her type. The leftist nymph of a hippie mom, she prefers bedding right-wingers as a way to convert them in a sort of brainwashing-by-orgasm. Giving new definition to the term “political whore,” she records her innumerable sexual encounters as part of a future book.
Baya’s sex addiction stems from the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, but her political “conversion therapy” is presented by Leclerc as a precious quirk, not a source of serious (or even seriocomic) inquiry and, worse yet, as a tawdry male fantasy. Were the film closer to the truth, Baya would be a pitiful figure, her body a Petri dish for worse diseases than the ones Arthur takes great care to track in animals. Arthur, for his part, repeatedly advocates “precaution” in living around diseased birds, a position Leclerc didactically hammers as the life philosophy that prevents him from committing fully to Baya.
“The Names of Love” is not without fascinating riffs on modern identity, connections to our past and the constantly evolving zeitgeist. It’s too bad they’re buried in a mess of telegraphed clichés and a possibly offensive treatment of an abuse victim.
"The Names of Love" opens Friday at Regal Shadowood 16 and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Regal Delray Beach 18 and Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Frank Theatres at Sunrise 11 in Sunrise and Frank Theaters Intracoastal 8 in North Miami Beach.