Le Nom des Gens has so much going for it: witty dialogue, imaginative touches, engagement with some interesting political issues, a strong lead performance from Jacques Gamblin and even a brief appearance by former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. So what makes this movie so toe-curlingly awful?
The major problem lies in director and screenwriter Michel Leclerc’s depiction of the female lead, Bahia (played by Sara Forestier). On the surface, she’s an interesting character, wholeheartedly engaged in many different left-wing political concerns. She has made it her mission to convert men with right-wing or fundamentalist leanings to her cause. So far so good. But what is her method of convincing such men to be more tolerant of immigrants or to help lobsters escape the cooking pot? She has sex with them.
This system of political persuasion might be barely acceptable if Bahia were portrayed as a consistently independent and courageous person. But instead, she just happens to let her breasts fall out of her dress in public places, or she just happens to forget to get dressed before walking to the Metro, or she just happens to appear in the nude in every sex scene, while the men, including Gamblin, are always clothed. It is extraordinary that certain French directors can still get away with such breathtaking sexism. Let’s imagine it the other way round: the film’s hero Arthur (played by Gamblin) just happens to forget to close his fly or to wear underwear and just happens to let his penis hang out at every possible moment while Bahia remains fully clothed throughout. Point taken?
Worst of all, we are informed early in the film that the reason for Bahia being such a slut is that as a child she was sexually abused by a piano teacher. This might be a valid starting point to explore the reasons for her adult promiscuity, but, instead of considering her abuse in any depth, it is breezily passed over. If the movie were simply a brainless comedy, one might expect such inattention to detail. But in the rest of the movie, there is much soul-searching about the childhood of the main characters and their parents. Arthur, for example, seems traumatized by his mother’s inability to talk about the fate of her Jewish parents during World War II, while Bahia’s father’s eagerness to please and lack of self-confidence are strongly linked to his life as an Algerian immigrant in France.
As much as I have always detested reviewers who are humorless and arch in their political correctness, I may just have to join their ranks for once: by the time Bahia was shown running on the beach to liberate live crabs from the fishmonger into the sea while the camera focused exclusively on her scantily clad buttocks, I was howling in anguish.
Reader Mimi Taylor writes: “In our films here, in the USA, you rarely see the men naked but always the women, so there is no difference between the two countries. I remember the first American film that I loved that showed a naked man that was relevant to the plot: Don’t Look Now with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie – it was simply them going about their toilette.”