French film about Jews and Muslims
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French film about Jews and Muslims

Madcap French film about a Jewish-Muslim pair raises important questions

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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Baya (Sara Forestier) and Arthur (Jacques Gamblin) in “The Names of Love.”

France has the fourth largest Jewish community in the world, after Israel, Russia, and the United States. The community numbers somewhere around 500,000, constituting about 1 percent of the population of France, and it blends more firmly ensconced Jews with first- and second-generation Jews from North Africa. Muslims outnumber Jews about 10:1, and we are acutely aware of the tensions across the country between Jews and Muslims. These figures and disquiet serve as the backdrop for what Baya Kasmi and Michel Leclerc try to do in their zany new film “The Names of Love.”

Directed by Leclerc, the film brings together a shy middle-aged Jewish man with a young extraverted woman with Muslim roots. They carry their own historical baggage, as we learn early in the film that Arthur Martin’s mother survived the Shoah as a hidden child in France and Baya Benmahmoud’s father endured French imperialism and war as a youth in Algeria.

The images of a young girl, Arthur’s mother, walking through the streets of occupied Paris, separated from her parents whom she will never again see, are powerful, as are those of Baya’s father watching French troops waging war near his home in Algiers. The young girl will survive the war, marry, give birth to Arthur and live out her life, all the while never sharing her war experience. Though she was not born in France, her identity never becomes an issue until late in the film, when she needs to apply for an identity card and can provide no proof of citizenship. Similarly, Baya’s father arrives in France as a penniless street peddler with no documentation, but he meets a woman from French high society who is attracted to his “exotic” nature. The two marry and Baya is born. The question of national origin remains an obsession of the French, and the two writers subtly attack the question through their narrative.

What Arthur and Baya have in common is an undocumented parent with severe war scars who meets and marries a French citizen and is subsequently assimilated into the mix of French society. Arthur (Jacques Gamblin) is a government ornithologist, whose responsibilities include oversight of the bird population and taking necessary precautions to minimize any possible risk of endemic disease, like bird flu. Though he is able as a scientist, he seems unable to hold onto any relationship.

Baya (Sara Forestier) has no real job and is an activist, free spirit, and hippy-type who is trying to make the world a better place by winning over men with totally different political convictions through seduction. Though she carries her own childhood scars – or possibly because of them – she has few inhibitions about sex and nudity, something with which the viewer may have issues but Arthur does not. Until he meets Baya, Arthur takes the straight and narrow route, while Baya’s actions always seem outrageous. The curious attraction that each has for the other provides much of the lampoonery that the two writers try to convey. Are these two typical of the new France?

The film seems like a madcap out-of-control story about an improbable relationship, but it raises important questions. One issue that I found particularly fascinating and quite important for our comprehension of the French Jewish experience is the question of “duty of memory.” Just what responsibility does the next generation have in tackling the past and memory? For most of us it seems clear that we bear responsibility for “remembering” and that this remains a major Jewish precept.

When Arthur’s mother is traumatized by trying to get new identity papers, both Arthur and Baya aim to help her by encouraging her to share more of her past and talk about what she endured during the war. Do they feel that she will benefit from sharing or are they simply curious and want to know more of their own histories? Just who benefits from the telling? Does she heal if she shares? Writers Kasmi and Leclerc leave us to debate and decide.

Though I may not necessarily agree with an underlying premise of the film – that these two people with such different backgrounds, personalities, religions, and identities should be together – the viewer should see this story in a broader context, with the hope that coexistence in France is indeed something to be strived for, something that is possible. The situation for Jews in France remains complex. The Jewish community is vibrant and economically successful, yet it has seen its share of anti-Semitic acts over the last decade. More French Jews than ever before are buying apartments in Israel, just in case. Meanwhile, the two filmmakers seem to be optimistic about the future and they have tried to convey this sense in this somewhat audacious satire.

The film, which is in French with English subtitles, makes references to contemporary France and even has former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin appear in the film (à la Woody Allen) to discuss his politics. So brush up!

Sara Forestier, who gives an absolutely delightful performance, won France’s César Award for best actress and the writers won for best original screenplay. Original it is! The film opens today in New York City at the Sunshine and Paris cinemas.

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