The Names of Love (Le Nom des Gens) -- Film Review

Very funny French political satire whose comic nuances will be lost on everybody else.

This delightful, sexy, and often audacious crowd-pleaser, though at times gratingly cute, should perform wonders at the boxoffice in its native France.

CANNES -- This delightful, sexy, and often audacious crowd-pleaser, though at times gratingly cute, should perform wonders at the boxoffice in its native France. However, The Names of Love (which has nothing to do with its French title Le Nom des Gens, which is where the problem starts) is so French, that most international audiences will be completely baffled by its very specific topical references.

As such, festival programmers around the world who are looking for something funny to offer better-travelled viewers should give it a close look. Commercial prospects outside of France, however, are not favorable.

Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) is a free-spirited young woman, just as happy with her clothes off as on, who takes the old hippie slogan "make love, not war" a step further than usual. Her "political" strategy is to seduce right-wing men and then, when they're at their most vulnerable point, whisper things like "not all Algerians are thieves" in their ears.

One day she meets middle-of-the-road scientist Arthur Martin. Played by Jacques Gamblin, he's a kind of French everyman, especially since there are nearly 15,000 men with his name currently living in France. She is half-Algerian, tainted psychologically by shameful secrets from her childhood, and he is Jewish, though his family resolutely refused to ever speak of the Holocaust while he was growing up.

Out of this basic premise comes a bubbly comedy that appropriately turns more serious toward the end, when the various secrets are predictably revealed. Baya is an insouciant fast-talker, sometimes painfully reminiscent of the cutesiness of Ellen Page's Juno. She is also very comfortable with and in her body, and loves to show it, even in front of scandalized Islamic fundamentalists in the Paris metro, where she presents herself completely naked. A dinner scene with Arthur's parents, in which inadvertent references to the Holocaust keep appearing is a scream.

Anyone who's ever known a real-life, black-and-white loudmouth political ignoramus like Baya will cringe, but the sexy Forestier will go a long way toward assuaging the pain. The real problem is that while three-fourths of the film's jokes concern Arab-Jewish relations or the situation of North African immigrants in France, with which many viewers will be aware, the laugh-out-loud humor of the film comes in its many references to French domestic products ("Arthur Martin" is a popular French washing-machine, a fact that's mentioned every time he introduces himself), French political parties, French pop stars, and so on.

To take one prominent example, a reference to a well-known talk-show-style philosopher named Bernard-Henri Levi is translated in the subtitles as "Woody Allen," an equivalence that would probably shock both parties. At the political climax of the film, the former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin makes a hilarious cameo appearance, but no one beyond "the Hexagon" will have the slightest clue who he is.

It's too bad that every prospective viewer of this strong film can't be provided a glossary of French pop culture upon entering the theater.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Critic's Week
Production Companies: Delante Films, Kare Productions
Cast: Sara Forestier, Jacques Gamblin, Carole Franck, Zinedine Soualem, Michelle Moretti, Jacques Boudet
Director: Michel Leclerc
Screenwriter: Baya Kasmi, Michel Leclerc
Producer: Caroline Adrian, Antoine Rein, Fabrice Goldstein
Director of photography: Vincent Mathias
Music: Jerome Bensoussan, David Euverte
Editor: Nathalie Hubert
Sales: TF1 International
No rating, 95 minutes