Cannes 2019: After Venice, Adbellatif Kechiche takes his series Mektoub, My Love to the French Riviera

Baradwaj Rangan

May 23, 2019 13:13:48 IST

In terms of pedigree, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love series may be unprecedented. The first part (subtitled Canto Uno), adapted from François Bégaudeau’s French novel La Blessure, la vraie (The Real Wound), was screened in the main competition section of the 2017 Venice International Film Festival. And the second part (Intermezzo) will be part of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival competition line-up. Has there been another film whose instalments were in the running for the most coveted award in two different (and major) film festivals? And let’s not forget that Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour created its own kind of history, becoming the first film to win three Palme d’Ors: one for Kechiche as director and one each for the lead actresses, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. The latter are the first-ever non-directors to win a Palme d’Or and the only women since director Jane Campion to take home the prize.

Which brings us to more drama than you’ll find in the three hours of Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno. Like the film, this off-screen drama, too, unfolds in two parts. ACT ONE: In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Kechiche revealed that his financiers had withdrawn from Mektoub during the post-production stage. He had promised to deliver one two-hour film, but he felt the final work was better represented as a diptych: two chapters of three hours each. “I encounter a hostility in the French cinema of today since I do not belong to this family, which does not hesitate to express its disdain toward me,” the Tunisia-born director said. And so we segue to ACT TWO: Kechiche decided to auction off his Palme d’Or, as well as several items from the set of Blue Is the Warmest Colour, to raise the finances to complete the Mektoub movies.

Cannes 2019: After Venice, Adbellatif Kechiche takes his series Mektoub, My Love to the French Riviera

A still from Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno

Kechiche hated the festival’s decision to honour his actresses along with him. He said he did not need (former Cannes president) Gilles Jacob’s “blessing” to sell off his Palme. “I would rather think it is for him to explain the meaning of this secret ceremony he organized to award the two actresses with two other Palmes d’Or, declaring that they were ‘in a small way also the directors of the film’...  Does he really think that a director can accept such a disparagement?... Is it possible to have three Palmes for one film? ... In that case, why did the Dardenne brothers get only one Palme? Why is this the only film in 70 years to receive three Palmes? What is the real meaning of this triple Palme d’Or? For me, liberating myself from this Palme d’Or is a way of washing my hands of this sorry affair.”

If Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno had throbbed with a fraction of all this feeling, it would have really been something. The film might be autobiographical. The Hollywood Reporter review said, “Begaudeau’s original book explored the adolescent growing pains of a 15-year-old boy in the Vendee region, on the Atlantic Coast, in 1986. Here, the characters are older and the story is set in the 1990s, when Kechiche himself might have been struggling to write the screenplay of his 2000 directorial debut, Poetical Refugee.” That aligns Kechiche with the protagonist, a Paris-based photographer and screenwriter named Amin. When Amin returns to his seaside hometown for a vacation, he gets pulled into a telenovela’s worth of relationship issues. His no-good cousin Tony is having an affair with Ophélie, who is engaged to Clément, who is away fighting a war. Then we have Charlotte (who falls for Tony) and Céline (who seems to like Amin, and maybe Ophélie, too). I’ll give you a second to say “Phew”!

A still from Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo

A still from Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo

What Kechiche does with this material is what he did in Blue Is the Warmest Colour. At his best, he is one of the greatest manufacturers of a lived-in reality on screen. Where another filmmaker might simply pan a camera over glistening bodies to suggest a day at the beach, Kechiche works in lengthy conversations about sun-tan lotion and waiting for a boyfriend and wanting to take nude photos. And when this style works, it really works — as it did in Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Take the scene where Emma suspects Adèle isn’t quite telling the truth when she says she went out for a drink with co-workers. The fight builds and builds for some six-and-a-half minutes, but it never feels gratuitously drawn out because we are invested in the characters, the narrative. But in Mektoub, these scenes just feel gratuitous and drawn out. We don’t know Amin or Ophélie or any of the others beyond the broad plot points of their love lives, and by the time we get to a nightclub sequence that lasts some 30 minutes (and gives us nothing except a kinkily exploitative camera, which was an accusation hurled at parts of Blue, too), many viewers may have had enough.

The one sequence in Mektoub where Kechiche’s “I’ll be a fly on the wall and I won’t edit or shape any of this, and I will just let the scene go on and on” style works is when Amin is at Ophélie’s farm. We get some 20-odd minutes of him hanging out, and at the end, he witnesses the birth of a lamb. I have seen many documentaries about livestock, something about this stretch makes it stand out. It feels intimate. It feels like we are eavesdropping on something sacred. Maybe it’s the music. Maybe it’s also how the scene makes us feel time. When Amin started out at the farm, it was daylight, and now it’s dark, so the director has done some editing and shaping, after all — only, the technique is so invisible that we are swept along in a tide of time. I can’t say I’m all pumped to see Intermezzo, but if there’s anything like this single scene, it would be worth all the arty longueurs.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).

All images from Twitter.

Updated Date: May 23, 2019 13:13:48 IST