Screening at the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 10, “The Names of Love” delivers a dizzying mix of sexual farce, political commentary, and satire. The French title of this romantic comedy, playing as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society’s (MVFS) winter series, is “Le Nom des gens,” which translates as “The Name of People” and echoes the phrase “nom de guerre” or pseudonym.
The English title was changed, no doubt, to better reflect the romance at the heart of the film between Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) and Baya Benmamoud (Sara Forestier), two Parisians who couldn’t be more dissimilar in personality. Their names become the source of endless puns and jokes that reflect the movie’s underlying message about immigration and assimilation.
Arthur’s moniker, as common in France as John Smith in the U.S., also happens to be that of a French cookstove company, much to his embarrassment. The joke probably is funnier in French.
In an introductory prologue, viewers learn that Arthur’s Jewish mother Annette was hidden in an orphanage during WWII, after which she married a French nuclear technician named Lucien Martin. Arthur and his repressed, conservative parents never discuss Annette’s traumatic history.
Despite Baya’s obviously Arabic last name, people assume she’s Brazilian. Like Arthur, her family is ethnically mixed. Her father Mohamed is an Arab immigrant, while her mother Cécile is French.
In her youth, Cécile was a hippy and a political radical, happy to marry an impoverished Muslim illegal. Baya carries an important secret about her childhood; the point of all this genealogical history doesn’t become clear until after the prologue.
Only a French director — in this case Michel Leclerc — could get away with the essentially sexist premise about Baya, that she has turned herself into a prostitute to convert fascist men into liberals. But M. Leclerc succeeds in making Baya, who is so muddleheaded she can walk down the street buck-naked, a believable and appealing character.
As conservative and repressed as his parents, Arthur’s infectious smile persuades the viewer that Baya has utterly captivated him. Since he supports Lionel Gospin, the real-life socialist who once served as Prime Minister of France, Arthur’s politics are actually more suitable than Baya thinks at first. And M. Gospin makes a cameo appearance.
Director Leclerc tosses out so much information so fast in the prologue that viewers may find their heads spinning, but the audience will find its patience rewarded.
Arthur’s and Baya’s nutty behavior and their essential goodness prove as satisfying as their love affair. Skilled acting and clever cinematic devices — imaginary characters, pseudo-vintage footage and plot reversals — overcome an initially confusing narrative.
“The Names of Love,” Saturday, Dec. 10, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 MVFS members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.