THE NAMES OF LOVE (2010)
For some strange reason, the American title of this film was weirdly translated from the more apt Les Noms des gens or People’s Names. And people’s names are what identify people as “French” and favored or as Jewish or Arab or outsiders and “not French.” Although the subject matter is very serious, this Mary Poppins of a movie serves the discussion of nationality with a spoonful of sugar and a heaping helping of female nudity to make the message/medicine go down. Given the tension in France today regarding the wave of immigrants “coming home” to the mother country, a light-hearted response was probably a wise one. Obviously the production was impactful for the screenplay by Michel Leclerc and Baya Kasmi won a César as did the leading actress, Sara Forestier. The way a society copes with change in the twenty first century is through popular culture.
Like Great Britain, France has been coping with the blowback of Empire and with the consequences of colonialism for at least fifty years. The last of the French colonies, Algeria finally won its independence in 1962 after decades of shameful repression. Perhaps the best-known film depicting this grotesque struggle of a colonial power to hold on to an empire is The Battle of Algiers, an even-handed film made by the Algerian government in 1966. More recently American audiences have seen Of Gods and Men, (2010), another painful account of atrocities on both sides. Les Noms des Gens makes the very good point that the modern nation of France must come to terms with its own past. The movie proposes that individuals move beyond their “names” and fixed identities and to merge separate entities labeled “Jewish” or “Arab” or “French” into new, perhaps nameless, people for a new era in the name of love.
Baya Benmahmoud is a later day hippie, a free spirit who makes love not war on right wing “fascists” and bigots who are male. She leaves the female fascists alone and directs her efforts to the male of the species who are “converted” into left-wing liberalism through having sex with her. She is a Lysistrata in reverse who sees fascism everywhere even in a veterinarian (Jacques Gamblin), who specializes in dead birds. While Baya celebrates her identity as an assimilated Frenchwoman with an Algerian father and a French mother, her newest target, Albert Martin, is hiding a half-Jewish identity. Between the two of them, this unlikely couple embodies two sensitive points on the French body politic—what the French did to the Jews during the Nazi occupation and what the French did to the Algerians during the post-war period.
Critics have complained, rightly, that the movie is a superficial treatment of a serious topic, but it is perhaps all the more effective for that. The great Louis Malle produced a masterpiece of anguish, Au Revoir les Enfants in 1987, which unflinchingly examines the scar of the Holocaust on the French conscience. The intention of Les Noms des Gens is simpler than that of films, such as Malle’s, which take a historical approach, but with a light touch, it makes its point. Arthur’s parents are still haunted by the feeling of being hunted by the Nazis and his mother’s lost Jewish identity eventually comes back to her and drives her to suicide.
There is an interesting scene where Arthur and Baya visit the “Deportation Memorial” on the Île de Cité to find the names of his Cohen relatives. Because there were so many “Cohens,” listed in alphabetical order, their search is futile. Dedicated by Charles de Gaulle, this memorial was designed by the architect Georges-Henri Pingusson for the purpose of honoring the French “martyrs” of deportation to Nazi camps. What the film does not say is that this memorial is not an official “Holocaust” memorial and it lumps the Jewish victims in with other political enemies of the Nazis, whitewashing (the memorial is white) French culpability in the death of 200, 000 French citizens, 76,000 people including 11,000 children who just happened to be Jewish.
In fact Les Noms des Gens passes over the ugly past in Algeria lightly and approaches the recent debate over whether or not French Muslim women can legally be veiled or not a bit more directly. Without getting into the controversy, the film follows Baya to her latest conquest, a traditional Muslim man, who, unlike her father, veils his women. The shock of seeing this beautiful free wheeling woman shrouded by black garments says it all. The question of whether the veil is a suppression of the humanity of women or is an assertion of Muslim identity is asked and answered in a few minutes. Baya, whose mother is French, asserts that in the veil she is seen as a Muslim woman for the first time.
Of course, when her work is done, Baya leaves her Muslim fascist, jettisons the veil, and marries Arthur, two halves making a new whole and creating a child who is beyond “names” or the labels that tear societies apart. Les Noms des Gens predicts that names will not matter in the new society that is in the process of re-identifying and redefining what is “French” in the twenty first century. The message, amusingly and deftly delivered is a hopeful one of global peace through love and marriage and children. We can only hope.
Oh and by the way, we Americans are not as ignorant as the French seem to think: we don’t need to have “Bernard Henri-Lévy” translated into “Woody Allen” on the subtitles. We know who Bernard-Henri Lévy is, thank you very much.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger