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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Horizontally Speaking

The surreal world of the soap opera; sex and politics in Paris.

The Names of Love
Music Box Films

LATELY I WAS BRIEFLY in a rehab home and had a specific afternoon time slot when I could watch television. I spent some time watching late-afternoon soap operas and found them interesting. Not the stories: I hardly remember any bits of them. What interested me overall was the acting. Of course the acting cannot be completely separated from the scripts: both are business created in board rooms and ad-agency offices. But by the time the acting reaches us, it is a sort of creature of its own.

Before long, I had the feeling that all the acting I was seeing—the loves, the spats, the rivalries—was taking place between indentured creatures in a kind of fish tank. All of them were living underwater, and I was watching from a glass-bottomed boat. The shape of the television set encouraged this feeling with this stuff much more than it does with films because of the visual banality. In films, what you see is continually fighting the frame in which you see it. In the soaps, the actors seem like fish swimming up to the glass, then flicking on.

Long ago I used to work in radio drama. It was, among other things, much more censorious—what wasn’t?—than it is today. (In the mid-1940s I wrote a series about a cruise ship, and I was asked to eliminate the word “porthole” because it sounded suggestive.) But the general atmosphere of radio was free and easy. In considerable part, I thought this was because it had a cousinly relationship to the theater, which was itself more relaxed than it is today. Radio was a detour from or corollary of the theater. In fact, one radio-soap star invited audiences to her studio and took bows. Today’s television people seem a quite distinct breed. Some of them subsequently appear elsewhere, but as a community of actors they seem isolated.

I know none of these people. I am not offering facts, only impressions. I have seen actors—nay, some of today’s stars—who have come out of current soaps. (I know there are things on television better than what I saw, but during my stay I never watched anything other than soaps—the well-reputed programs were on at the wrong time for me.) And I have seen moderately competent people in films who came from soaps. But the general effect of the soap people is of a special species living in a world fashioned for them.

They are the result of a latter-day factor in the history of acting. That history has its own social refulgences. For example, I am convinced that seventeenth-century Parisians went to Corneille and Racine for the drama, of course, but also to hear their language richly written and richly spoken, as a unifying national experience. More, changes in general culture can sometimes be measured by changes in acting. In 1898 the English playwright Arthur Wing Pinero wrote Trelawny of the “Wells,” about a young actress who is the star of a melodrama theater. She leaves for a bit, and while she is gone a realistic playwright comes in, alters methods, and even brings in the box set—real walls with real doors instead of the old-fashioned wings. When the actress comes back to the theater, she has to adjust her former rodomontade to doorknobs.

Soap acting has its own generic uniqueness. It was brought about by social factors that had nothing to do with theater or allied cultures. The origin of soap acting was business. It is generically American. Of course almost every country on earth now has the equivalent of soaps, but they began here. Part of their singularity is that they are the first art or area of art created by industry. Film grew out of technology, but no cereal maker had a hand in its making. As I watched these actors in their tanks recently, they seemed to know that the cereal people were creeping up their backs.

Whatever the atmosphere is now, professional directors and writers are on hand to transmute sales messages into presentable performance. And, of course, commercial sponsorship is at the base of most television. Still, my intensified attention, plus the fact of the soap’s peculiar origin, made me feel more sharply that, every afternoon at a specified time, a special, almost submarine world floated into view, filled with gorgeous creatures who would flicker next to one another for a few moments during which they would deal with emotional climaxes. What a dollop of destinies was settled every afternoon by these creatures’ swift, darting, trout-like flashes alongside one another.

A FRENCH writer-director wants to make a film about the persistence, stains, and secrets of recent French history—his country’s contributions to the Holocaust, as well as Algerian troubles and the current Muslim agitations. Does the director choose a protagonist braced to deal with these grave subjects? Not if he is Michel Leclerc. His protagonist is a sexy madcap girl. She is a free-living half-Algerian in Paris, utterly leftist, who calls herself a political whore—she sleeps with rightists in order to convert them. With her very first explosion on the screen she announces that this film, The Names of Love, is going to whirl its shadowy subjects in unaccustomed lights.

Madcaps are risky playthings. First, we know that they don’t really exist: they are artifacts. (As far back as My Man Godfrey, Carole Lombard was less believable than William Powell.) This girl, named Baya, is danced before us less as a person to reckon with than as a force in motion. Leclerc lets her go a bit too far at times— once she forgets to dress and takes a subway ride in the nude—but we feel it’s not her madness, just his wiggling of the puppet strings. Which is generally clever.

Her companion throughout this continually surprising film is named Arthur Martin, which is apparently the name of a popular French household appliance brand, a fact of which he is reminded whenever he mentions his name. (Imagine an American named Jenn-Air.) Arthur is a sober chap, an ornithologist who works for a government bureau. He and Baya have a relationship, literally on and off, throughout the picture. He doesn’t quite know what is happening as she whizzes around him, but he comes to accept it.

He is Jewish. This delights her adversarial self, and in time he meets her parents: her belligerent French mother and her gentle Algerian father, who is a handyman when he could be a painter. Baya meets Arthur’s father, who had been a French soldier involved in nuclear energy work in Algeria. Arthur’s mother is the one oboe voice in this pizzicato piece. (In one of the many flashbacks, we see the mother as a six-year-old in an orphan asylum being told that her name is no longer Cohen. In the long run this proves untrue.)

Leclerc, whose first film this is, is a director of considerable courage and delightful energy. Hippety-hop, with lightness and wit and insight, he ruffles a series of snippets before us, past and present, each of them a stab of illumination, including the occasional reappearance of the adolescent Arthur as adviser to his older self. Subtle character touches: Arthur’s parents are in the habit of buying new appliances just as they are going off market. (When did anyone last see a motorized shoeshine kit?) This gives them a quaint relationship to the up-to-date. Two flashes of an antique couple trying to get on a bus tell a story. We also glimpse Baya’s affair with a rank fascist, a book-signing, a pregnancy, a keenly moving moment with a child and some whipped cream, and a sort of melting at the end.

The collection could, I suppose, be called a story, but essentially it is Leclerc’s album of percepts. The reason that he placed them all in this pinwheel of a film, he says, is to demonstrate that comedy is “the only classy way to talk about personal matters without becoming self-absorbed.” This is a bit too wary. His film implies his belief that all history, including the gravest, ends in irony. Irony, we might note, is not cynicism: it is much worse. Thus Leclerc’s comedy about it is all the more daring.

In any case, his screenplay won a César (the equivalent of an Oscar), as did his leading actress, Sara Forestier. She rounds off the leading character as winningly as possible, and as Arthur, Jacques Gamblin is never quite overwhelmed by her.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the August 18, 2011, issue of the magazine.