French romantic comedy is a quirky, sexy exploration of multiculturalism, family

Arthur (Jacques Gamblin) and Baya (Sara Forestier), with Arthur’s parents (Jacques Boudet and Michèle Moretti) in the foreground. Photo courtesy Music Box Films.


The charming French rom-com “Names of Love” has a great deal to say about the significance of names and what they say or don’t say about one’s heritage and family.

Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) has a name no one else in France has, meaning she has to explain it constantly. Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) has one of the most common names in France, meaning he is constantly mistaken for others. Both names conceal and reveal things about them and their families. In Arthur’s case, it’s that his mother’s parents were Jewish Greeks and his mother survived the Shoah in France as a hidden child. For Baya, it’s that her father is from Algiers, although everyone seems to think the name she inherited from him is Brazilian.

While “Names of Love” is delightfully funny, quirky and romantic, the story also speaks to tolerance, diversity and cultural identity. It touches on anti-Semitism, Arab-Jewish relations and immigration, as well as the toxic nature of secrets and the scars of history.

Baya and Arthur appear to be totally different. She is a young extrovert, an unconventional free spirit and liberal activist. He is a middle-aged, buttoned-down, introverted scientist whose liberal views are more conventional. Baya sees as her life’s work like the old ‘60s slogan “make love, not war.” She targets and seduces right-wing men, whom she calls “fascists”, and turns them to her left-wing viewpoint. Arthur is a biologist whose specialty is tracking disease, particularly bird flu, in wild birds. His watch-words are to be ever vigilant, and that dropping one’s guard could be fatal, not just in his work but in his life.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

But they are actually linked by their families’ ties to historic tragedies, the Algerian War and the Shoah in Vichy, France. These histories shaped their childhoods and present lives. Arthur’s mother survived the Shoah hidden in an orphanage after her parents were deported to Auschwitz. She is so traumatized as a child that she continues to conceal her Jewish heritage as an adult, marrying a non-Jewish French nuclear engineer. She never talks about her parents, leaving her only child Arthur longing to know about his grandparents. At school, Arthur keeps the family secret, perhaps in part because he has no answers to questions that revealing his mother’s true identity might prompt.

Baya’s father is traumatized as a young boy when much of his family is killed in the Algerian War. Fleeing to France as an illegal, he worked as a house painter. He met and married Baya’s mother, a blonde French woman who was a ‘60s hippy and no-nukes activist, and they had several kids. Baya’s leftist family is very involved in their Arab community but they are secular people who reject Muslim extremism. Like Arthur, Baya also has a family secret.

The film won Cesar Awards (France’s equivalent to the Oscars) in 2011, for Best Actress for Sara Forestier and Best Original Screenplay for co-writers Baya Kasmi and Michel Leclerc, who also directed the film.

The script is intelligent yet funny, packing in a lot of food for thought without ever bogging down the romance. It is also partially autobiographical, drawing on the family stories of both Kasmi and Leclerc.

The acting is superb. Forestier is irresistibly incandescent as Baya, as good-hearted and distracted a pixie as ever danced across the screen. Gamblin is warm and touching as the conflicted and smitten Arthur, torn between being outraged and frightened by Baya’s uninhibited behavior and drawn to her energy and freedom. Actors in supporting roles, particularly Baya’s parents, Cecile (Carole Franck) and Mohamed (Zinedine Soualem), and Arthur’s parents Annette (Michele Moretti) and Lucien (Jacques Boudet), are also compelling.

“Names of Love” is a thoroughly delightful film, with both a brain and a heart, a sweet romantic comedy and a winning appeal for both tolerance and honoring one’s heritage.

‘Names of Love’

Opens Friday, Aug. 26 at Plaza Frontenac

Running time: 1:40

In French with English subtitles