The original French title of the new comedy “The Names of Love,” which opens on June 24, was “Le Nom des Gens.” That loosely translates as “the name of people” and, for a film that is very much about the nature of identity and self-definition, it is a more apt title. On the other hand, since the film is a sweet-natured romantic comedy, maybe things are best left as they are.
The premise of the film, directed by Michel Leclerc from a script by Leclerc and Baya Kasmi, is typical of the genre: the mismatched couple who “meet cute” (to borrow a famous phrase from Billy Wilder, one of the genre’s masters) then butt heads, part, reunite, part, reunite and eventually end up married. As the old saying goes, tragedy ends with a funeral, comedy with a wedding. The dividing line between Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) and Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) is superficially obvious. He is a secular Jew whose mother, a “hidden child,” has never spoken of the death of her parents in the Shoah. She is a secular Muslim, the child of a father who lost most of his family in the Algerian War, which he never discusses.
The difference between them is underlined by their names. Her mother deliberately chose to marry someone who would give her a typically French surname, and his parents gave him one of the most common names possible. (There is an amusing running joke about the cookware manufacturer of the same name.) Her mother, a hippy eccentric, was happy to marry someone whose otherness was instantly visible and, although she doesn’t look Algerian, Baya is hilariously forthright about her ethnic identity. (Apparently, Leclerc and Kasmi are replicating their own real-life meet-cute.)
But the heart of the film is less the collision of ethnic identities, although the issue of deracination is deftly and intelligently handled, but the deeper clash of personalities. Baya is an extrovert, a committed progressive who sleeps with right-wing men in order to convert them. She is the proverbial free spirit who is incapable of holding down a job or sustaining a relationship. Arthur isn’t a right-winger (he’s a supporter of the Socialist leader Leonard Jospin, who has a delightful cameo), but he is compulsively risk-averse, a scientist whose career and psyche are dominated by a compulsive caution.
Explained that way, “The Names of Love” sounds as formulaic as a sitcom, but what raises it significantly above the lower depths of the genre is that, as we learn through some nicely judged flashbacks, each of the protagonists’ personal behaviors is the outgrowth of traumas that could easily have produced a tragedy. Slowly, as Baya brings Arthur out of his shell and Arthur offers Baya an emotional safety zone she has previously found only at home, the film becomes more serious, although without ever losing its comic edge. It climaxes in a slightly rushed but nevertheless satisfying finale that unites the tragic and comic elements with great skill and charm, and a couple of closing gags that also bring together the personal and the political threads for a couple of bang-bang final punchlines.
The other element that raises the film above formula is the same one that enlivens the best of its American models, terrific lead performances that make its central characters more than a collection of comic tics. Gamblin, who bears a striking resemblance to Willem Dafoe, is a nicely grounded actor who balances an inner seriousness with a certain wry detachment. Forestier is a polished physical comic who radiates warmth and a believable eccentricity; she is also one of those rare actresses who is so utterly un-self-conscious that she can be hilarious while naked. (That quality pays dividends in an intensely erotic scene in which Arthur dresses Baya, who we have already seen undressed repeatedly.)
The essential trajectory of “The Names of Love” can be encapsulated in that movement, from farce to a revelation of deeper feelings. This is nowhere more intense than in Leclerc’s treatment of the Martins’ unspoken pact of silence about Arthur’s murdered grandparents, the pivot on which the film’s most intense moments turn. Arthur’s ambivalence about his identity and his past is a thread that runs through the entire film, and the moment in which he finally reaches some kind of resolution, drawing on seeds planted in an early comic scene but here revisited with real poignancy, is one of the most satisfying elements in a very satisfying film.
“The Names of Love,” directed by Michel Leclerc, opens Friday, June 24 at the Paris Theatre (4 West 58th St.). For information, phone (212) 688-3800 or go to www.paristheatre.com.