Michel Leclerc's "The Names of Love" is a bit of a strange beast. On the one hand, it's a rather serious look at racial identity, with one character hiding his Jewish heritage and another dealing with being half-Algerian.
On the other hand, it's a frothy French sex comedy. You don't see too many politically minded films where a young woman rushes out of her apartment, down the street and onto the Metro before realizing that she's forgotten to put any clothes on. Only in France.
Writer-director Leclerc somehow manages to mix his lighter and darker tones very well, making for a comedy that's fun and saucy, occasionally hitting you out of left field with a shot of poignancy.
Baya (the ebullient Sara Forestier) is a live-wire young Parisian, proud of both her Algerian father and her hippie French mother. She's a proud left-wing radical who thinks she's found the perfect way to convert right-wingers to her cause; she sleeps with so-called "fascists," and her prowess in the bedroom helps them see the light. Hey, it beats commenting on a blog.
Her definition of "fascist" has grown pretty broad, so when she hears a bird flu expert named Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) expressing concern and caution on a radio program, he becomes her next target. An uptight, fastidious man (and a leftie to boot), Arthur would seem to be a poor match for the free-spirited Baya. But, in the classic tradition of Manic Pixie Dream Girl films from "Amelie" to "Garden State," Baya worms her way into Arthur's bedroom and his life, trying to get him to loosen up.
It's a familiar story, but one that Leclerc tells with a lot of energy and ingenuity. He rockets the story back and forth from the present day to an episode in Arthur or Baya's childhood, and sometimes the kid versions reappear in the present day. (The teenage Arthur counsels the grown-up one on how to keep Baya.) The clamped-down Arthur and the daffy Baya turn out to make a winning pair, and Forestier is especially good at capturing Baya's shifting moods, deadly serious one moment, playfully seductive the next.
Underneath the fun, the movie is very tuned in to the identity politics of France, particularly the ongoing struggle over the country's large immigrant population. Baya represents a multicultural vision of the country, while Arthur represents the idea of sweeping any differences under the rug. Hey, if these two kids can work it out, maybe there's hope for the entire country.