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French film asks, what’s in a ‘name’?

by Tom Tugend

June 14, 2011 | 5:48 pm

Sara Forestier as Baya in “The Names of Love.” Photo courtesy Music Box Films

Sara Forestier as Baya in “The Names of Love.” Photo courtesy Music Box Films

Baya Benmahmoud, the heroine of the French film “The Names of Love,” gives new meaning to the concept of political activism.

A fervent, if rather naïve, left-winger whose guiding motto is, “Make love, not war,” her mission is to convert right-wing politicians to the correct ideology by sleeping with them.

“I am a political whore,” she announces proudly when she meets Arthur Martin, a 40-ish, uptight ornithologist, who rambles on about bird diseases when Baya inquires whether they should make love at his or her place.

So, the film’s opening promises a racy comedy, set in the 1980s and in Paris, of course. Voyeurs will not be disappointed, as the ravishing Baya walks around, indoors and out, without any encumbering clothing.

But between the jokes and the frontal nudity, the director and co-writer, Michel Leclerc, injects some sharp observations about racial prejudice, politics, victimization and how people define their national and personal identities.

“I wanted to show that racism can come from any place and that, at one time or another, we are all strangers to each other,” Leclerc commented in a phone call from Paris, facilitated by a translator.

The movie’s Baya and Arthur personify this observation. Her father, Mohamed Benmahmoud, is an Algerian Arab whose own father was killed by French soldiers and who experienced the vicious warfare of the French-Algerian war as a child in the 1950s.

Baya’s mother is a rebellious, leftist Frenchwoman, who transmitted her fair complexion to her daughter. So, while Baya can easily pass as a non-Arab, she delights in flaunting her Algerian heritage.

On the other hand, Arthur’s French Catholic father, Lucien Martin, is a nuclear scientist who served with the French army in Algiers. Arthur’s mother, Annette Martin, nee Cohen, is Jewish and was hidden during the Nazi occupation of France, while her own mother perished in Auschwitz.

Where Baya glories in her half-Arab heritage, Arthur does his best to ignore his half-Jewish background. But when he acknowledges his Jewishness to Baya, the girl is delighted.

“We’re two slices of history making love,” she exclaims happily. “We’re the future of humanity. When everybody is a half-breed, we’ll have peace.”

It would be easy to accuse director Leclerc of creating two characters, an Arab and a Jew, to make some facile points about opposites attracting and love conquering all.

The twist here, as Leclerc detailed in the interview, is that the film is, in all essential points, autobiographical. Leclerc is the film’s Arthur, and the film’s Baya is Baya Kasmi in real life.

“We met 10 years ago, have been partners since and have two children,” Leclerc said.

The partnership goes beyond the domestic, with the director and Kasmi credited as co-writers of “The Names of Love.”

The original French title is “Le Nom des Gens” or “The Name of People,” a much more apt title, given the movie’s theme that we pigeonhole people not only by their nationalities and religions, but also by their family names.

“I opposed the title’s English translation,” Leclerc said, “but I was told that if the film was to succeed in America, it had to include the word ‘love.’ ”

Commenting on his two main characters’ respective family traumas, the Holocaust and the Algerian war, Leclerc said he abhorred the “ridiculous competition of suffering.” By setting the film’s time frame in the 1980s, Leclerc examines France’s long-delayed reaction to the country’s collaboration during World War II and the atrocities committed during the war in Algiers.

“For decades, the subjects were taboo,” the 45-year-old director said. “But for my generation, growing up, these events became obsessions, and we had to talk about them.”

The contrasting identities of the lead characters are beautifully expressed by veteran actor Jacques Gamblin as Arthur, and rising star Sara Forestier as Baya. The latter won a Cesar, France’s equivalent of the Oscar, for her performance, as did Leclerc and Baya Kasmi for their screenplay.

“The Names of Love” opens June 24 at the Landmark Theater, at the corner of Pico and Westwood boulevards in West Los Angeles.

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