In trying to describe “The Names of Love,” a French film by director Michel Leclerc, many words come to mind — whimsical, funny, touching, clever, insightful. But above all, it’s muddled. This is really three films in one: a witty romantic comedy, a lyrical love story and a social critique. And while the film has a lot of smart and sensitive things to say about love, politics, cultural identity, colonialism and sex, these strands of brilliance, (while often funny or poignant on their own) never quite coalesce.

The Names of Love

At the Michigan
Music Box

“The Names of Love” opens with Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin, “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life”), an earnest, dour but handsome man in his forties, talking directly to the camera. He is also one of about 15,000 other Arthur Martins in France, he tells us.

Next, we see Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier, “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life”), a young, passionate and colorful woman who brightly tells the audience that no one in France shares her name. She is one of a kind.

The film takes its time narrating the lives of these characters, making much of the disparity in their backgrounds. Arthur is the son of a Franco-Jewish mother who grew up during the Second World War, and Baya is the daughter of an Algerian father who fled to France when the French occupiers killed his family. In the present day, Arthur is a successful veterinarian, and Baya is a devoted liberal activist who lives by the maxim “make love not war” — her only occupation is the political conversion of right-wingers through sexual seduction.

Though charming and inventive, this portion of the film drags on far too long. It’s almost 30 minutes before the two protagonists even meet. But once they do, they waste no time in getting together: The two go from strangers to lovers in a matter of a few scenes. Opposites do attract, it seems, and their union is satisfying.

Here is where “The Names of Love” begins to fracture into three. As Arthur spends time with Baya’s family, the film offers some compelling insights into Muslim culture, and some significantly less compelling musings on modern French politics. But also, as the romance between Baya and Arthur develops, there are several poetic, beautifully shot love scenes that are extraordinarily warm and sensual. And interspersed at regular intervals are scenes of pure comedy, some gimmicky (when Baya, through her characteristic caprice and forgetfulness, somehow ends up on the metro naked) and some brilliant (an awkward family dinner in which every word evokes the Holocaust), which are alternately distracting and refreshing.

As “The Names of Love” goes on, it begins to grapple with even larger themes. It turns out Arthur’s Jewish grandparents were victims of the Holocaust, and he and Baya bond over the similarities of their persecuted ancestors and muse on their national and cultural identity. “We embody France,” Baya says.

However, the film begins to reel out of control, and many strands are left hanging. It even succumbs to some romantic comedy tropes, including the perfunctory breakup/reconciliation. Underneath all this is the sense that the filmmakers are trying desperately to keep the audience interested. The director is clearly talented, and “The Names of Love” would have benefited from a decrease in scope, a tighter focus.

But the two lead performances are brilliant enough to cover up many of the film’s inconsistencies, and always at the core of the film are Baya and Arthur, who remain appealing and fun to watch throughout. They make “The Names of Love,” if not the social critique the filmmakers might wish it to be, at least a pleasurable, even affecting, diversion.

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