The American romantic comedy has grown distressingly moribund lately, but anyone looking to freshen up the genre a bit need look no further than Michel Leclerc’s The Names Of Love. The French filmmaker fills the film with rom-com conventions—from a film-opening meet-cute to an unflappably quirky heroine—but puts them to work in the service of a story with more on its mind than whether two characters clearly meant to be together will hook up before the credits roll. The French title, Le Nom Des Gens, literally translates as “the names of people,” which doesn’t have the same poetic ring, but gives a better sense of the film’s concern with cultural identity. Leclerc is especially interested in what it means for a pair of, in one of the characters’ words, “half-breeds” to live in a France obsessed with origins and identity, even though neither immediately sticks out as anything but Gallic to the core.
Leclerc co-wrote the film with Baya Kasmi, and both drew on their backgrounds for the project. “Leclerc” is also the name of a French supermarket chain, and the protagonist played by Jacques Gamblin shares the name Arthur Martin with a brand of French cookers. However conspicuously French his name, his identity has been shaped since birth by knowing his grandparents, Jewish immigrants from Greece, died in the Holocaust after being rounded up by the Vichy government. A mild-mannered specialist in avian diseases, he makes an unlikely connection with Bahia (Sara Forestier), the sexually adventurous daughter of an Algerian handyman and a rebellious Parisian. Forestier spends her spare time bedding right-wingers in an attempt to convert them to a more liberal point of view, but she takes an immediate, deeper liking to Gamblin, and they begin a halting but charged courtship.
In spite of the film’s serious subtext, it’s unmistakably a romantic comedy, and Leclerc keeps a light touch throughout. A series of flashbacks trace the history of Forestier and Gamblin’s characters; then, the child actors who play them stick around to converse with their adult selves. (In one memorable scene, the two kids talk to each other while their grown-up alter egos make out on a park bench.) At times, the touch feels too light. A scene in which Forestier tries, and fails, to refrain from mentioning anything related to the Holocaust verges on queasily cutesy, and is only rescued by Forestier’s performance. (She’s almost blindingly appealing here; she took home a César for her performance, as did Kasmi and Leclerc for their script.) But the whimsy is balanced by the leads’ chemistry, and the deft sense of the way two people falling in love bring not just their own histories with them, but the histories of their families and the cultures and nations that molded them. That’s a lot of weight for something as intangible as love to shoulder.