Cannes 2019: French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche's Mektoub is a baffling head-spinner of a film
For the second film in the Mektoub trilogy French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche auctioned off the Palme d’Or he won for his moving 2013 first film. But was it worth it?
For the second film in the trilogy and the prequel to his 2017 Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno, French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche auctioned off his Palme d’Or he won for his moving 2013 lesbian drama, to raise funds for his next instalment, because his producers backed out.
Watching Mektoub, it’s impossible not to wonder whether the producers were in the right about their decision. Because Kechiche's Mektoub is a deliriously head-spinning work and it’s baffling why he needed almost four hours to tell this story.
It’s the 1990s in sun kissed south of France, Sète, and the youngsters from his Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno are at various points of transition in their lives. Ophelia (Ophélie Bau) is pregnant with Tony’s (Salim Kechiouche) baby that she wants to abort before she gets married to Clement, an open minded man in the military who’s absent in the film. Tony is confused about the pregnancy news but nevertheless he and Aimé (Salim Kechiouche) hit on a new Parisian girl Marie (Marie Bernard) who’s vacationing with her parents. Amin (Shaïn Boumédine), the aspiring filmmaker from the previous film, is unsure about his prospective move to Paris.
Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo opens with Amin photographing a beautiful girl’s face by the beach. But as the camera gently lingers down onto her body, the movie’s focus soon becomes clear. Cut to the next shot, a group of young girls soak in the sea, the camera trailing their every move.
Over sensuously biting into chunks of bread, they talk about everything under the sun from abortion to fresh produce from Ophelia’s farm. This lasts for an unusually long 30 minutes, and what follows is an assault of a different nature. The group moves to a night club soon as the sun goes down, with a solid three hours of dance floor visuals served over trashy disco music.
It’s questionable whether this work qualifies as a movie at all, because it plays out disjointedly, with just three sequences, without any narrative structure. What’s even more questionable is how this movie qualified to be in the Cannes competition lineup. Surely, the jury is in on the joke?
The movie plays out for nearly four hours (3.5 to be precise, against the advertised 4; a little sense prevailed there perhaps) and much of it in a night club. Much of it is only women gyrating with their bottoms in closeup. Lettif’s camera take several close up shots for three long hours.
As if it needed a break, the camera follows Ophelia and her new fling Aimé into a crammed bathroom where the man performs oral sex on her for an extraordinarily long 30 minutes. Painfully uncomfortable closeups later, the couple return to the dance floor for more gyrating under psychedelic lights.
Even as controversy is raging over the treatment of his women actors on sets, Kechiche’s treatment of women onscreen is no less exploitative. Not surprisingly, Kechiche’s male gaze is evident since the sexuality on display here is restricted solely to women. Even as the women discuss men and their sexual attributes and preferences, the camera stays tightly close to the women’s faces, as if it wants to voyeuristically capture their fetishising emotions alone.
The agency Kechiche provides his women is alas, skin deep. With men constantly overstepping boundaries and women brushing it off seemingly unreasonably, sexual predation envelopes the narrative. This marks a painfully evident creative low for a director who stormed into French cinema with his uniquely sensual storytelling, even as his methods came under increased scrutiny.
At the press conference, Kechiche wore pink tinted glasses and frowned when asked about the allegations against him (even yelling at the journalist whom he accused of asking ‘stupid’ questions). Of the things he had to say on the subject of the movie, one word stood out: metaphysical. It’s entirely unclear what about the movie is metaphysical, but I surmise it’s a cool word to throw at the doubters for shock value.
In the end, when the movie abruptly winds up with another closeup, the audience is left with a confusing array of emotions, all amplified by a piercing headache for having unkindly been subjected to a three-hour dance floor gyration ritual.
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