Viewers of The Names of Love may be left wondering if America's liberals should consider deploying armies of attractive women to seduce and transform our Glenn Becks and Rick Perrys. That's a ridiculous notion, of course, but it's the slender, occasionally rewarding comic conceit behind Michel Leclerc's film, co-written with Baya Kasmi.
We meet wan, dull Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), saddled with a name that seems to be the French equivalent of Bob Smith. He's an animal epidemiologist, the government expert who discusses bird flu on the radio every time a dead goose or chicken is discovered. And it's when he's on the radio one day that he's interrupted by a wild-eyed, impetuous and fetching young woman named Baya Benmahmoud, which seems to be the French equivalent of, well, Baya Benmahmoud.
After this meet-cute, the two of them sit for a drink and Baya propositions him, saying that she always sleeps with men on the first date, "on principle." Baya turns out to be the child of an Algerian laborer and a rebellious, upper-class French mother, and her ambition is to sleep with as many fascistic men as possible, hoping that her multicultural appeal and sexual favors will turn them into decent human beings. And indeed, it's difficult for anyone—fascists, Arthur or the audience—to resist the charms of Baya (exuberantly played by the generously underdressed Sara Forestier).
But Baya's lack of inhibition turns out to be a response to a childhood trauma, a theme that runs through the film. Both Baya and Arthur are the products of troubled parents—Baya's father suffered terribly as a child in Algeria, while Arthur's mother was orphaned during the German occupation when her Jewish parents were deported to Auschwitz. The rest of her life, we learn, has been a project of repression, denial and attempts to forget. (Michèlle Moretti's performance as the mother is almost shocking in its unrelenting self-abnegation—there is not an ounce of bathos.)
At its narrative essence—a neurotic nebbish proves irresistible to a kooky sex kitten—The Names of Love follows the classic Woody Allen template, minus the Schopenhauer jokes. There's a light, breezy touch throughout, and a nice use of Woody-ish imaginary characters. A running gag about Lionel Jospin, France's underachieving Socialist leader, results in a memorable payoff, while the film's exploration of France's tortured history of persecution, imperialism and violence packs an occasional punch, even if the characters are often thinly sketched caricatures.