Michel Leclerc’s The Names of Love, screening Sunday as part of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, is a comedy about genocide, political ideology, sexual abuse, national identity and racism, among other things. It is also one of the most refreshing films you’re liable to see screened at the festival this year.
The Names of Love tells many stories, the center of which is the May-December courtship of Arhtur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), and Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier). Their pairing seems improbable at first: he’s a starched-collared veterinarian quick to suppress any and all emotions; she’s a political and social extrovert and a geyser of opinions.
The attraction, initially physical, is quickly complicated by markedly different lifestyle philosophies and familial backgrounds (he is the grandson of Auschwitz victims, her father has lived through the Algerian war). Yet Arthur and Baya’s romance offers them a new orbit, inching them closer to the center, and each other.
Floating in and out of their lives are a host of supporting characters, forming the film’s connective tissue: parents, friends, politicians and former lovers. Even French President Nicholas Sarkozy has a cameo (albeit a television one).
For all this, the film is not a triumph of narrative. The “stiff upper lip granted a new lease on life thanks to a beneficent young firebrand” is a story we’ve heard before. The film succeeds chiefly in its ability to rejuvenate a stale set-up and steer in into daring arenas. Did I mention it’s also really funny? While the Algerian war and the Holocaust should meld with guffaws like oil meets water, The Names of Love walks a tightrope between laughter and tears throughout, seamlessly fashioning a world where whimsy is not only a shield from grief, but also a noble reaction to its pall.
At a dinner organized for Alex’s parents, a nervous Baya cannot keep from unconsciously eluding the death of his mother’s parents in the Holocaust. Ushering her into the kitchen his advice is to speak all the taboo words aloud, to cleanse them from her system. “Gas chamber, deportation, Jew, Woody Allen,” she chants. This levity is underscored as Leclerc pivots freely between points in history, occasionally fusing the past and present with Arthur frequently turning to his younger self for romantic counsel. Ultimately, when the severe, unmitigated dramatics do arrive, they hit twice as hard.
Further distinguishing The Names of Love are top tier performances by Gamblin and Forestier. Their natural chemistry offers not only a thrilling dynamic, but also one of the all-too-seldom instances of performers having as much fun playing their roles as you are having watching them. Much praise has already been showered on Sara Forestier in recent months, and rightly so. She plays Baya with a wide-eyed intensity, engaging fully with the world around her. Jacques Gamblin inhabits a man with less airborne vibrancy, but his subtle characterization elevates Arthur from the conventional “straight-man” role to a lively study in emotional fortification stifling a youthful free spirit.
The Names of Love is a film interested in both our personal and global history, and the sadness, confusion and humour that exist at their crossroads.