George Carlin, that brilliant comic wordsmith, once quipped that if he had invented the slogan “make love, not war,” he would have gone to the beach for the rest of his life, presumably because he would have already made such an important contribution to humanity that his life would be justified and would no longer require any further contributions from him. In the daffy The Names of Love leftwinger Bahia Benmahmoud (the to die for Sara Forestier) takes this expression to its extreme, making love with reactionary men precisely so they won’t make war, and otherwise exploit, oppress, et al, their fellow human beings. This is only natural for this activist, a political extremist (although not of the bomb tossing variety — despite the fact that she’s what used to be quaintly called a “sex bomb”), who calls people she disagrees with “fascists” with the frequency American teenagers say “like.”
Simply put, this lefty madcap comedy may very well be the best new movie your erstwhile reviewer has seen on the big screen in years. Michel Leclerc’s The Names of Love has everything Francophiles and those of us who fancy ourselves to be cinephiles — instead of fans or buffs! – expect and love in French films: Sexual obsession, nudity, gauchiste (leftist) politics, visual panache, tenderness, poignancy, etc. It is a worthy successor to that venerable French film movement called “the New Wave,” sort of combining Francois Truffaut’s tender romantic sensibility with Jean-Luc Godard’s agitprop politicking with Jacques Tati’s zany drollery. (Although in the context of this sexy movie morsel, the title of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows would take on a completely different meaning.) Going further back in the French arts, I wouldn’t be surprised if Moliere himself might have felt that this was the type of play he would have written, sans censorship.
Love is about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, Algeria’s liberation struggle against French colonialism, being Arab in today’s France, sex, romance, the movement against Pres. Sarkozy, but most of all it is about Bahia, a sexually emancipated half-Algerian beautiful young woman full of love (literally and figuratively) for all humanity. (Intriguingly, this is the second recent movie to depict a sexually free part-Algerian woman, the other being Now & Later, starring Shari Solanis.) Bahia is sort of the incarnation of that essential ingredient in French cinema: Joie de vivre. After her cute meets with the middle aged Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), the free spirited Bahia knows she cares about the animal disease control government bureaucrat because she has sex with him, even though Arthur isn’t a rightwinger and he votes for the Socialists! (The party’s former presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin, has a very funny cameo.)
Love also deals with the post-traumatic stress disorders of Holocaust survivors and their offspring. Arthur’s mom Annette (the moving Michele Moretti) physically survived the Shoah, but she has never psychologically come to grips with the cost of losing her parents in Hitler’s death camps, a pain that has been passed down to Arthur. Similarly, Bahia’s father Mohamed still deals with surviving Algeria’s anti-colonial war for independence, and is thwarted from pursuing his true avocation, as a painter. (In the same way, a childhood trauma has affected Bahia, who sublimates her dream of playing piano into sexuality.)
This comedy is a laugh a minute and unlike most puritanical pictures in America, has lots of graphic nudity. (For instance, the U.S. documentary Orgasm Inc., about the quest for female Viagra, doesn’t reveal any nudity; a puppet is used as a stand in for vaginas. Good grief!). Bahia may be a bit ditzy, but this “political whore” (as Bahia calls herself) with a heart of gold and sexually liberated revolutionary may just be the Reichian dream girl, the ideal woman! Best of all, this sexually free woman isn’t made to “pay” for enjoying sex, which is one of the oldest, most tired clichés under the sun.
I had some concerns about Bahia’s childhood incident and the treatment of it and of that other cliché – the older man with the much younger woman (no wonder Leclerc is such a Woody Allen fan!). But these are mere quibbles. Sara Forestier deservedly won the Best Actress Cesar Award (France’s equivalent to the Oscars), while Leclerc and Baya Kasmi won the Best Original Screenplay Cesar. Leclerc says Love is autobiographical – if so, lucky him! And lucky you, dear viewer, if you go see this uplifting (no pun intended) lovely lefty French sex farce. Don’t miss The Names of Love. Viva l’amour!