Despite the spare September scheduling, Tacoma’s Grand Cinema offers its audiences an especially resonant, thought-provoking screening of The Names of Love (Le nom des gens).
Though the film conducts itself like a romantic comedy, and certainly dresses the part, it is difficult to dismiss it as a vapid piece of escapism. It uses its powers of endearment as a strategy to ensure the besotted audience is receptive to deeply challenging subject matter.
In many ways, the character Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) is a personification of the film itself; using her attractiveness and charm to seduce others as an opportunity to enlighten them. Specifically, she wields her sexuality as a tool of indoctrination to draw conservative men into her sphere of left-wing political awareness.
While this may seem a fanciful endeavor, Baya blithely informs the audience that her life of compulsive promiscuity is the fate society assigned to her as a child who was sexually molested. By willfully embracing this contrived identity, Baya harnessed her vulnerability: the reactionary impulse to dominate others becomes a means to fulfill her ebullient activism. In this way, Baya is able to actively triumph over her history – and social convention – while neither denying nor perpetuating her experience.
Given her own success, Baya avidly seeks to liberate other traumatized souls, encouraging them to actively engage and defuse their burden.
For her Algerian father, who once found solace in art from a childhood distorted by French colonialist atrocities, Baya encourages a return to art and exposure of the events which have become memory. This altruism, though often rebuffed, goes without criticism until she targets the unobtrusive and propitious Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin). Arthur eludes her agenda, and together they forge an emotional, human, connection.
Arthur, the son of a Holocaust orphan, has determined that trauma is untouchably personal to the victim. Feeling unfit to claim the holocaust as part of his cultural heritage, he considers efforts to access and unburden his family’s pain to be an egregious violation. What right does the public have to unleash and wrangle an experience the sufferer may wish to wrestle with discretely? At what point does public awareness and commemoration of victims become exploitation and sensationalism? Given the accessibility of social media and indulgent journalism, a traumatic event gets squeezed through thousands of personal conduits of reflection, long before (or perhaps in replacement of) any attempt at discernment or discretion.
In an adolescent flashback, Arthur Martin and his classmates are shown assembled around a plaque paying tribute to the French citizens who were “deported” during the Holocaust. In the midst of the discussion about social awareness and obligation, the pubescent Arthur volunteers his nascent opinion that this tribute is a disservice to victims who, he believes, would rather be presented a commemoration of positive occurrences. He suggests, perhaps, “the first time they ate whipped cream.” Is this statement of cultural guilt and continued remorse yet another burden on victims? Do victims have an obligation to society to undergo the healing process?
Amidst this controversy, Baya brings Arthur to a Holocaust museum to find the names of the maternal grandparents he knows little about. Garbed as National Geographic caricatures of Romaniote (Greek) Jews, Arthur’s maternal grandparents appear before him. They say that forgetting their memories indicates their victimizers won. In this scene, Arthur is standing before a cataloged record that permits him to grasp their murder without connection to their life and their humanity, perhaps explaining why these figures appear as exaggerated stereotypes.
This film questions our right to liberate others of their perceived burdens and so-called deficient perspectives to save us the distress of seeing them. Arthur reminds Baya that religious and political conservatives may not be conveniently invalidated for their trying beliefs. As the romantic comedy canon demands, Arthur and Baya’s must be torn asunder.
Arthur returns to his inhibited life of decorous service. Baya returns to her sexual program with her most worthy conservative adversary, a traditional Muslim who challenges critics of the veil on TV. Given how charged this topic is, especially in France, it is a daring move by the filmmakers to place a particularly formidable portrayal of a traditional Muslim in the role of romantic adversary-antagonist. Is this a device to make the audience examine the tension that emerges when such a figure asserts himself? What does it mean that the audience is set up to look unfavorably upon an already vilified demographic?
By likening itself to Amelie with unmistakably analogous conventions and similar visual storytelling, The names of Love wrings the sentiment, humanity, and prejudice of the audience.