05 July 2011

Leclerc’s ‘Le Nom des Gens’

Forestier and Gamblin

I’ve often compared the experience of watching a French movie without subtitles to that of riding in a jet plane: it’s best to cede control, not to think, just to fly. Otherwise, the whole vehicle zips right past you, and there’s no way you can catch up.

The experience of watching a French movie with subtitles, I’m now discovering (or rediscovering) is more like that of conversing with a woman with great breasts. You’re constantly reminding yourself not to look down, just to look her in the eyes. And yet God (or the movie distributor) must have put those things there for some reason. And so you wind up looking anyway — but furtively, guiltily.

Michel LeClerc’s Le Nom des gens (The Name of the People, translated by U.S. distributors as “The Names of Love”) opened in France last November, when its topicality might have seemed less subtle than it did this week. France had been engaged in a “debate on national identity,” and a debate whether to have that debate, in which almost everybody (including me) weighed in with an opinion. Even members of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party protested that the “debate” has been needlessly divisive, though their voices aren’t enough to stop him in his quest to steal votes away from the far-right Front National.

Dîner en famille: Jacques Boudet and Michèle Moretti
as Arthur’s parents

Rather than try to shout Sarkozy down, Leclerc and his co-screenwriter, Baya Kasmi, opt for a less polemical, more seductive approach, one that to some degree mirrors that of their heroine, Bahia (the irrepressible Sara Forestier): a passionate leftist, she sleeps with right-wingers until, besotted with her, they renounce their “fascistic” ways.

This provides an amusing new spin on the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” phenomenon immortalized by The A.V. Club. Yes, Bahia does shake up the lives of stick-in-the-mud men and invest them with new energy — but for a reason. Bahia is the daughter of a French hippie and an Algerian laborer; Arthur, her romantic foil, is the son of a French scientist and a Jew whose parents were deported to Auschwitz. (He’s not a right-winger, though his parents are.) “We’re bastards,” Bahia declares (the subtitles prefer “half-breeds”), while insisting that they are the future of France. Only when everyone is a “bastard,” she says, will discrimination stop.

While watching, you’re hardly aware of the filmmakers’ larger purpose — or at least it crept up on me, at this remove from the “debate” and from the shores of France. And for all the fun of the exchanges between Bahia and Arthur, the movie’s most effective moment comes when Arthur’s mother (Michèle Moretti) can’t produce the papers that would prove to the satisfaction of a bureaucrat that she is, in fact, French.

After a lifetime of avoiding the subject, she’s forced to remember the roundup (La Rafle) of the Jews during the war, and the constant demands for identification during the Occupation. Stunned and silent, she walks out of the city hall, familiar to us from several happier (and funnier) scenes during the film. Her face is stricken. She no longer recognizes France, because France no longer recognizes her.

Les bons pères: Arthur’s father (Boudet) and Bahia’s (Soualem) find common ground, while their kids look on.

Other bits of specifically French political commentary are delivered with more carefree humor. Like many other French leftists, Bahia’s an emotional wreck when she has to vote for Jacques Chirac in 2002, after the Socialist Lionel Jospin loses the first round; later in the movie, Jospin himself makes a cameo appearance. (He appears to be enjoying himself immensely.)

Although Americans have their own issues to resolve with regard to race, ethnicity, and immigration, Le Nom des gens does function perfectly well as a romantic comedy, especially in so far as it addresses the degree to which we reveal our personal identities to a lover, over time. How soon can I tell her who I really am? Will she accept me if I do? And how can I show her that I accept her?

As both Bahia and Arthur recount their stories for the audience — but not yet for each other — we get several flashback scenes, and the match of young to older actors is often uncanny. Arthur’s younger self (Adrien Stoclet) frequently steps into the modern-day action, advising his grownup self and commenting on his conduct; scenes from the boyhood of Bahia’s father (the excellent Zinedine Soualem) are made all the more poignant for their swiftness, and mostly we see them through a child’s drawings.

Forestier, who arrived on French movie screens in an astonishing starburst (in L’Esquive, 2003), hasn’t always persuaded me in the movies she’s made since: she’s got more personality than craft. But she’s marvelous here, completely at ease and thoroughly credible even at Bahia’s loopiest. In the far less showy role of her lover, Jacques Gamblin manages to make Arthur lively and sympathetic.

Together, they’re a fun couple, and you’re rooting for them to work it out — much the way that I’m rooting for France.

Cahier intime: Bahia shows Arthur her chronicle of conquests.

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