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Thread: THE NAMES OF LOVE (Michel Leclerc 2010)

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    THE NAMES OF LOVE (Michel Leclerc 2010)

    Michel Leclerc: THE NAMES OF LOVE (2010)
    Review by Chris Knipp


    JACQUES BOUDET, SARA FORESTIER, JACQUES GAMBLIN and ZINEDINE SOALLEM IN THE NAMES OF LOVE

    Silly and serious

    The French title of The Names of Love is Le nom des gens -- people's name. This is a romantic comedy, but it's a uniquely French one, a romantic comedy of ideas, and its starting point is literally on people's names, and the way they hide or reveal cultural and racial identities. This is a romantic comedy, but it's also a movie about the way France is now, the history its citizens carry around with them, the ways in which they are marked by the main events of the last century and the politics of today. Partly this is a film about multiculturalism. It makes use of various devices to get its points across, some of them improbable, some farcical, and some simply fantastical. This is also very definitely a film in French by and about and for French people. It has had a more mixed reception with American critics than with the French ones, who generally liked it very much. It's not exactly a great comedy. But its genuine appeal even to the English-speaking audience is that it's witty and quick on its feet and it gives voice to aspects of life Hollywood has no language for. Le nom des gens doesn't entirely find that language either, but makes a darned good stab at it.

    Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) and Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) meet cute when the much younger Baya flies into a rage at a sort of informational radio broadcast. Arthur is an animal epidemiologist, and he's taking call-in questions about precautions that must be taken about a bird virus. Baya has been hired to take some of the calls, but she finds the callers and Arthur equally idiotic, and bursts into the sound studio to tell him so. Somehow, they're attracted to each other. But there are complications.

    They're obvious opposites. Young Baya is the leftist daughter of an equally leftist French-born mother and an Algerian-born Arab father whose parents were casualties of the Algerian war. She was sexually abused by a piano teacher and partly as a result and due to her desire to eliminate "fascists," as she calls anybody who's not a socialist, she now is a political "whore," seducing rightwingers and converting them to kinder, more caring ways of life. She doesn't look Arab or have much of a sense of Arab identity, but she aggressively pronounces her last name the Arabic way. Nonetheless people persist in thinking her origins are Brazilian, and she doesn't always contradict them.

    Arthur Martin, who has one of the most common names in France -- it's depicted as being the name of a brand of washing machine -- has a more complicated family history, which has largely been kept from him. His grandparents were Greek Jews. His mother survived while her parents were taken away in the war and killed. His parents' whole lives have been dedicated to forgetting that this happened and where they come from. Dinner table chat is an assiduous pursuit of innocuous non-topics. Arthur is a scientist and otherwise a tidy, well-organized man, as nondescript as his name.

    Young Arthur and his Greek grandparents are characters who come and go in the film and whom the adult Arthur sometimes addresses. Baya's free sexuality extends to wearing clothes that don't always keep her breasts out of sight, and on one early occasion she goes out into the streets of Paris stark naked out of sheer forgetfulness. She winds up sitting in the Metro opposite a woman in full burka. Perhaps to that woman's strict Muslim husband she is just what he sees in secular western woman anyway. Anglo tourists should not expect this to happen in real life. But it's a neat satire on the insensitivity of cultural liberalism.

    The contrast between Baya and Arthur is of someone who lets it all hang out (quite literally sometimes) and acts out her traumas and conflicts, in her case, and a man who has grown up with repression and self-abnegation and the discipline of a specialist. His job is to perform necropsies of recently dead animals and to establish protective quarantines: to define, analyze and restrict. But he's no fascist, and Baya likes him. She bursts into tears when she thinks she has accidentlaly voted for Sarkozy. He's a Jospiniste, a supporter of the failed French socialist presidential candidate of 1995 and 2002, Lionel Jospin, whom Baya brings to his flat as a present one day (with a cameo by the real Jospin). Somehow Baya and Arthur make a warm couple. Opposites attract, and though older, he's available -- and rather delighted by her. But there are many comic interruptions, all in the way of cultural and historical elucidation. First comes Baya's tendency to shack up with any ultraconservative she runs into. A dinner where she meets Arthur's parents becomes an absurd comedy of broached taboos. She wants to observe their rules of silence, but she just can't. Eventually Arthur, who feels his parents' repression of their Jewishness and their family's role in the Holocaust has robbed him of an essential part of his identity (as his young self asserts early on), presses his mother to speak.

    This is a solemn and sad moment, but there is always a playful side. Both the young and the mature Arthur think we should not remember the lost Jews of the French Holocaust only for their deaths, but for their joys -- like, for instance, the day they first tasted Crème Chantilly. This is a wise and pleasant dream, and Arthur's self-abnegation is also an expression of cultural assimilation that's essential to France's unitary secular statehood. There's self-denial also in Baya's Algerian-born father (Zinedine Soualem), who devotes all his time to repairing people's appliances, refusing to be the artist that he always wanted to be. But this allows Arthur's father (the excellent Jacques Boudet) to communicate with him, when they both take apart an espresso machine, Jew and Arab bonding in the cause of making a good cup of coffee.

    The Names of Love seems a little too silly sometimes, especially when it comes to Baya. But Sara Forestier is both winning and convincing in the role. This movie never loses its rhythm; it moves fast enough to keep the audience from questioning its quirkiness, and, a little paradoxically, since it has so many things to say, it doesn't feel like it's giving a lecture. This is the kind of stimulating, intelligent comedy the French are capable of, with a good heart, a clear head, and a naked lady. The best kind of comedy surely is the kind that makes you think: a serious comedy that nonetheless never stops being droll and even silly on the surface.

    Le nom des gens was released in France July 10, 2010. It went into rolling release in the US June 24, 2011. It opened in Bay Area theaters July 29.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-01-2011 at 05:55 PM.

  2. #2
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    Is comedy the most difficult genre, so to speak?
    Just look at your Top 10 for the past few years and tell me how many comedies are listed.
    When was the last time a comedy won an Oscar, or a Palme d'Or or a Silver Bear?
    There seems to be a wider difference of opinion regarding comedies than other genres.
    Maybe what one finds funny is rather idiosyncratic so no comedy is likely to have consensual approval...
    Maybe comedy is not suited to the long running time of the average movie...

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    Interesting questions. I don't know the answers. Obviously some jokes don't translate and often comedy, or sense of humor, differs from culture to culture; hence it may be "difficult" to translate a comedy, or writ a universal one. . However a good many French comedies get US remakes. And some comedy is well-nigh universal. You'd have to ask writers about its difficulty. It's a genre some have a knack for and others don't. Comedy has a leavening effect that improves a lot of other kinds of drama. For example, The West Wing, the TV series I've watched a lot of, has lots of fast funny dialogue, but the episodes are very serious overall.

    I also think that comedy, American contemporary movie comedy, has been a "difficult" genre for me personally. I didn't get it or enjoy it as much as action or drama or romance. But I'm beginning to respond to it more, partly just through attending more American comedies.

    The Names of Love is at the opposite extreme from the crude, vulgar kind of comedy that's common in the US, such as Bridesmaids or Horrible Bosses (or the unfunny and bad Bad Teacher). But Crazy, Stupid, Love is a tasteful old fashioned comedy and it has links with French farce, which some of the American reviewers seem to have missed judging by the way they describe it. I have been watching the Nineties British TV series "Men Behaving Badly" and I laugh a lot. Sometimes British humor seems much funnier to me than American. "Monby Python" is another example. Some passages in Tati's M. Hulot films really crack me up. They're wonderful. EArly silent comedy can be delightful. Apatow, sometimes, and sometimes not. But his "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" are great.

    I'd be interested to know how you like this film. I think you might.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-02-2011 at 12:33 AM.

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    I find it interesting that 11 of the "Top 20 US Grossing Comedies" are animated (IMdb). That may be relevant to this genre "difficulty" you mention. I don't like any of the live action comedies that people seem to like, or pay to watch to be more specific.
    I don't know if great live-action comedies are rare or that there is a wide range of preference regarding what's funny or amusing. My idea of a great recent comedy is Greenberg. As far as a great contemporary French comedy, my favorite is Not on the Lips. Not popular choices at all. I like the dramas, adventures, and thrillers that do well at the box-office better than I like the popular comedies.

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    Different things are called "comedies" . It's as broad a category as "dramas." Animated films aren't the same as funny movies with real people in them. The Change-Up follows the classic outline of comedy. Crazy, Stupid, Love follows the outline of a classic farce. Lots of really crude new American (live action) comedies are very, very funny, but if you are looking for something sophisticated and intelligent you're barking up the wrong tree. Greenberg is, I guess, more for educated, bourgeois people, and The Change-Up is made just for everybody, maybe especially white 20-somethings. Green erg is more a satirical portrait than a straight up comedy. It doesn't really have a barrel of laughs. But Horrible Bosses and (for those who like it; I don't) Bridesmaids and Crazy, Stupid, Love are designed to put you in a good mood and present laugh-out-loud situations, jokes, visual humor, and lots of shocks and surprises and people being caught off guard. As for animations, I don't know what to say. They are very popular, but they are mostly not the same as live action comedies. They're not just live action comedies translated into a set of drawings. They're something different, and based on mostly stories for kids. The Change-Up would be meaningless to kids. I cannot relate to Not on the Lips. I tried to watch it but found it terribly self-conscious and boring, though it may contain classic elements of stage comedy or farce, I guess.

    Comedy is affirmative (unlike satire). It ends with reconciliation, the couples being united. The differences being resolved. The Change-Up follows this classic pattern. Two men switch bodies and a comedy of errors occurs, they get into lots of scrapes, and then they begin having a good time and it works out, but finally they want to go back to who they are: reconciliation. It's very conventional. It doesn't rock the boat. But it plays with taboos and makes people feel good.

    The new (here) French film The Names of Love, which this thread is about, is, as I said, articulate and intelligent, full of politics and social commentary about where the French are now, but it is a romantic comedy, not a satirical portrait like Greenberg. It has laughs. I think calling anything a comedy that isn't funny is okay, but we have to bear in mind that as I said, different things are called "comedies." And there are different kinds of funny. There's ho ho, ha ha, and he he. There are shreiks, bellylaughs, and chuckles. There is smiling all the way through, and there's laughing so much you are afraid you'll wet yourself. Some physical comedy has effected me that way, notably some sequences by Jacques Tati years ago, I remember. Maybe Chaplin. The physical business in "Men Behaving Badly" can crack me up. I like English verbal humor a lot; they're better at it than Americans because their sense of language is wittier. Monty Python. The movie I recently reviewed, The Trip, had that effect with purely verbal humor, of making me (and others in the audience) laugh so much we were afraid of getting out of control and not being able to stop. Different individuals and different cultures have very different senses of humor, and there are lots of different kinds of comedy to appeal to them all.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-03-2011 at 09:09 AM.

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