You will never change your political opponents’ minds by arguing with them, but what if you have sex with them? Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) lives her life by this mantra. She is an ultra-leftwing idealist who sleeps with right wing fascists to convert them politically. She even keeps a scrapbook of her successful conversions; most of them are now some sort of shepherd. While listening to bird-flu expert Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) in a radio station one day, Baya bursts through the studio’s door and argues with him on the air that if you can’t trust ducks, then what is this world coming to? This is a very amusing argument and also makes for a humorous lead character introduction.
Any other film, such as an American one, would construct Arthur as a rock solid conservative and make it Baya’s quest to convert him. Ah, but this is an intelligent French film. Arthur is a socialist and while not nearly as leftwing as Baya, he proudly states he voted for Lionel Jospin. A warning: if you do not know who Lionel Jospin is, you will miss an amazing and funny scene. The Names of Love takes a sharp turn from where the film was leading the audience. It is not a romantic comedy, well, not all the way. Much screen time is devoted to Baya and Arthur’s respective families and to what extent they identify themselves as French citizens.
Baya’s father is from Algeria and vividly remembers the French Army shooting many of his relatives in the war. Her mother is a hippie who thinks everything non-French is fascinating which is why she marries a man with the last name Benmahmoud. Arthur’s folks at first appear to be the exact opposite of the first couple and are shown boring and set in their specific way of life. However, there is a lingering secret past with Arthur’s mother which is not necessarily hidden from view, but takes on more of a role as the film progresses.
The Names of Love starts out at a fast clip with both leading characters taking their turns talking directly into the camera about their youths and where they imagine themselves on the political spectrum. After a half hour or so, this starts to taper off and a more somber and contemplative mood takes over what was almost a comedic farce. Arthur and Baya are shown interacting with each other’s unfamiliar cultures and testing their respective boundaries. The script is whip smart and expects a lot from its audience, especially from its non-French audience. I give a high mark to how intelligent and probing this film is, but be wary of the shift from light comedy to more serious introspection.