‘The Names of Love’: Full frontal comedy, politics

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The astonishingly cheeky French screwball comedy The Names of Love willfully takes on the most sensitive issues from a single, calculated direction: head on.

With unbridled enthusiasm and fearless wit, co-writers Michel Leclerc (who also directed) and Baya Kasmi cover the political-cultural spectrum from the Vichy government’s deportation of Parisian Jews in 1942 to contemporary Arab-Jewish tensions.

Pairing its goring of sacred cows with over-the-top flaunting of female nudity, this audacious and entertaining movie goes so far beyond politically incorrect as to render the term meaningless. But its approach isn’t cynical or irresponsible. If its goal is to shock, it is to shock us out of our complacent, passive acceptance of stereotypes, racism and worse.

The Names of Love opens Aug. 26 at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis.

Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin, second from left) invites non-Jewish girlfriend Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) for an uncomfortable dinner with his folks. (Photo: Courtesy of Music Box Films)

Every romantic comedy requires a contrived meet-cute, but this one is especially and cheerfully shameless. A buttoned-down, middle-age, Jewish environmental scientist named Arthur Martin (an endearing Jacques Gamblin) is conducting a staid radio interview when a youthful station volunteer — infuriated by his mealy-mouthed assessment of the risks of avian flu — bursts into the studio to ream him out.

This incident impels Arthur to directly address the camera (that is, the audience) and begin rattling off his socially inept life story up to this point. An only child, Arthur was raised by likable yet cautious parents; his mother’s parents were deported and killed in the Holocaust, although he’s never been told the story.

In fact, the subject was taboo in the Martin house, even when the rest of France was finally confronting its dreadful history. In a typically daring and funny flashback, Arthur’s father jumps up to change the channel when coverage of Klaus Barbie’s trial comes on the TV. What does he find instead? A Holocaust documentary. Another turn of the dial and there, thankfully, is an innocuous quiz show.

Except, however, a contestant is giving a Holocaust-related answer. Holocaust denial may be eradicated in France, but it’s alive and well in the Martin home.

Inevitably, Arthur and his flamboyant tormentor, whose name is Baya Benmahmoud, cross paths again, with a more cordial result. She invites him back to her place, an everyday occurrence for her but discombobulating for him.

We’re primed for a variation on the old Woody Allen gambit — brainy Jew meets liberated gentile — but that’s way too hackneyed for this movie. Liberated, heck; Baya’s a caricature of promiscuity who sleeps with every conservative she meets to “cure” them of their wrongheaded political views. (She comes on to Arthur because she mistakenly thinks he’s one of them.)

The Names of Love is not the kind of lazy movie that asks us to take on faith what it tells us about its characters, so we get an extended scene of the sexually blasé Baya (a gutsy Sara Forestier, who won the French Oscar for Best Actress) walking around Paris nude. Only much later might it occur to you that the sequence is sending up the gratuitous nudity in French films.

Now it’s Baya’s turn to fill us in on her autobiography. The daughter of Algerian immigrants, she is as steeped as Arthur in government-backed bloodshed and institutional discrimination. With so much common ground to explore, even if a lot of it is marked with landmines, the couple embarks on a roller-coaster love affair of unexpected poignancy.

American moviegoers almost never encounter the mix of unvarnished social commentary and light-on-its-feet filmmaking that distinguishes The Names of Love. Don’t let this smart, nervy gem slip by.

The Names of Love opens Friday, Aug. 26 at the Lagoon Cinema in Uptown.

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