When going to a French comedy, one must always remember if will probably be wacky. One must remember this even if for the opening half hour or so the events depicted merely seem unlikely rather than just plain absurd. Therefore, even if you’ve been lulled into complacency by the flashbacks containing nothing more unusual than the hero’s mother being hidden from the Nazis in her youngest years or the heroine turning promiscuous because she’s been led to believe by her television that being a child sex abuse survivor obliges her to either turn into a pedophile or a whore, it still should not shock you if she’s suddenly leaving the hero being at the supermarket checkout line and racing down the street stark naked without her realizing it or anyone stopping her to point it out until she gets on a subway car. It’s a swerve through varying levels of absurdity that can throw you if you’re not prepared for it.
This is of course the kind of environment in which a manic pixie dream girl will be very much at home, and Baya, the heroine of Le Nom de Gens, carries most the qualities. But the movie is smart about it, not only in showing her to be a person with her own issues, but also showing that Arthur, the stick-in-the-mud hero, won’t just love her way of life immediately, but need a very great deal of time to adapt-arguably the entire movie, which lasts for years; it begins some time before the election of Chirac in 2002 and spans most of his presidency(it helps if the viewer has at least minimal information on French political history; the amount presented on The Daily Show will go a long way towards making this movie more understandable. Also 20th century French history in general, though the part most relevant to the movie’s plot is explained in it).
But to top it off, after beginning in absurdity, and then giving the relationship between two polar opposites a slightly more realistic treatment, dealing with the clash of families in a tense scene with nonetheless a good deal of comedy(sometimes you have to sacrifice your coffee maker for the greater good), and also putting down as a side-effect a good deal of political and cultural statement(though again, it’s more meaningful to those who know the current social/cultural situation in France) the later half of the movie turns a lot more serious as Baya finds out Arthur’s dark secret and runs interference in the way we knew by then she would, and the scenes that follow bring in a level of emotional pain you definitely are not expecting by then. Oddly enough, he never does find out her dark secret, at least not onscreen, though actress Sara Forestier manages to convey a lot more than the script gave her in the scene where she comes close to telling him.
The Names of Love is currently making the usual rounds of those French films that come to America. But do make sure you brush up on your knowledge of contemporary France before you rush to it.