There's a naming agency in Los Angeles, Scarcliff Salvador, that lists among its services character naming for movies and television. When I discovered this (via the agency's interesting blog, Cultural Branding), I was stricken with childish, foot-stamping envy. Why isn't anyone paying me to name characters, I whined to the walls. It sounds like the most fun anyone could possibly have with an encyclopedia and a baby-naming book!
Alas, I'm not in Tinseltown and my chances of landing this dream gig appear remote. But as luck would have it, I've recently seen three movies that seem to exhibit greater-than-usual care with character names. If I can't join 'em, I can at least talk about 'em.
Breaking and Entering, written and directed by Anthony Minghella, is a complicated love triangle set in London, where immigrants and exiles intersect with several species of unhappy Brits. The principal characters' names seem to be drawn from an ironic medieval allegory. Will (Jude Law), Liv ("live," played by Robin Wright Penn), and Bea ("be"; Poppy Rogers) form the unhappy British family: Will is spineless, Liv is cold, and Bea is autistic. A spirited Romanian prostitute (Vera Farmiga) is named Oana ("wanna"); when Will meets Want...well, no spoilers here. There are also a Bosnian mother (Juliette Binoche) and son (Rafi Gavron), whose names mirror each other, and even sound like "mirror": Amira and Miro. One more naming irony: the neighborhood in which the movie takes place is King's Cross--ironic because the area can only optimistically be called "gentrifying," although it's undeniably a crossroads. The film's title also has multiple interpretations: criminal, psychological, sexual. You can enjoy the movie without thinking about all this; for one thing, there are some terrific parkour sequences. And maybe that's the best option: so much naming symbolism tends to weigh down a plot, especially one as complex as this one.
Children of Men, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is a marvelous adaptation of P.D. James's dystopian novel, set in a near future in which no babies are being born. Amid the universal grief and violence, a miraculously pregnant woman emerges. When we learn that her name is Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), we get it: she's the key to the future of humanity. Her reluctant protector is Theo (Clive Owen)--Greek for "god." (And behold, the movie opened in the U.S. on Christmas Day.) There's a Luke and a Miriam, too, but no other overtly religious signals in the character names. And just as well, because to dwell on the names would distract from the power of this movie, with its stunning cinematography and deeply moving storyline.
Pan's Labyrinth (El Labirinto del Fauno in Europe), written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a beautiful and brutal fairy tale set in 1944 Spain, in the aftermath of the civil war. When you have a young protagonist named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) you have echoes of Hamlet: is she innocent or malign, dreaming or lucid, heroine or victim? Ofelia's mother, Carmen--a stereotypically Spanish name--is pregnant and tyrannized by her cruel new husband, just as Spain itself was subjugated by Franco's fascists. To survive, Ofelia turns to fantasy and also to a tough yet tender housekeeper, Mercedes ("mercies"), played by Maribel Verdú. Tellingly, the monstrous stepfather has no first name at all: he is simply "Captain Vidal."
I can't resist adding a few more words about Pan's Labyrinth that have nothing to do with the characters' names, interesting though they are. It's the most astonishing film I've seen in a season of excellent films (the aforementioned Children of Men, The Departed, Babel). The extraordinarily rewarding narrative uses violence in the most meaningful, primal way, the way it's used in myth and Grimm's fairy tales. The fantasy sequences are shocking and original and profoundly creepy...yet also humane and beautiful. And the music, by Julian Navarrete, is flat-out gorgeous. (Listen to it--especially the heartbreaking, wordless lullaby in waltz tempo--and buy the CD, here.) Director del Toro was interviewed yesterday by Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air"; he's one of the most thoughtful, articulate, and literate directors working today, and the interview is full of fascinating revelations. Del Toro's interpretation of the Frankenstein monster as a metaphor for adolescence was especially insightful.
And speaking of Frankenstein and fantasy and Spain, I recommend that you find a rental copy of director Victor Erice's El Espíritu de la Colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive), the story of another young Spanish girl's fantasy life--in this case, inspired by her viewing of the Boris Karloff Frankenstein. It too is set in civil war-era Spain, but because it was filmed in 1973, while Franco was still alive, it had to be much more indirect than Pan's Labyrinth. It almost certainly influenced Guillermo del Toro, and it makes a perfect companion to his own modern masterpiece.