Abdellatif Kechiche's new film about sex is disappointing, to say the least.
I think it's about time we all sit down and have a frank chat about Abdellatif Kechiche, because he's made me pretty cranky with his latest feature, Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno.
By now it's well documented that his last film, Blue Is the Warmest Color, was quite a controversial Palme D'Or winner. That was partly because it was criticised for its objectifying male gaze, but also because it came across as a very heterosexual take on a lesbian romance. To make matters worse, the movie's actresses then even came out to explicitly say that they felt that they had been mistreated by the director.
So how has Kechiche responded to these issues? Well, it seems the answer to that is like a flippant, petulant teenager scrawling a giant cock and balls across the international stage of the 47th Venice Biennale. And somehow this incontinent, miscreant effusion of a film has made it into the festival's Main Competition -- rather begging the question as to whether it isn't about time that the festival got a few more woke programmers in its ranks.
But how does one even start to explain exactly what made Mektoub, My Love so bad? I think with Blue Is the Warmest Color you at least had something approaching a touching love and coming out story, but with this latest film you have little more than what could perhaps be best described as the feature-length companion piece to Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines.
It's one ruddy long companion piece too, being a real three hour long indication that Kechiche has little power for being selective. Taken as a whole, this girating mess of a film effectively amounts to the directorial equivalent of Kechiche not being able to keep his dick in his pants, and as a result it makes me angry.
Funnily enough, though, the drama actually initially starts with a sort of holier than though, homilistic tone, lulling you into a false sense of security. A young Tunisian boy called Amin (who could quite easily be seen as referring to the director himself in his youth) cycles through a quaint, small French seaside town. Over the screen flashes a bit of biblical scripture about how "God is the light," and then the opening scene's cinematography promptly takes on a bright, whitewashed quality as sunlight streams directly into the camera. Everything seems dandy.
Though strangely, neither this theme or cinematographic style seem to extend much further than this opening scene. It simply just seems to be Kechiche telling us that he considers what he is about to show us about life to be completely pure and divine. Well, respectfully speaking, I don't see much divinity in your film, Mr. Kechiche. I just see a failure to do either gender much justice. But anyway, I digress...
Moments later, Amin sneaks round the back of a house, approaching the source of what we can clearly hear to be the groans of a woman. The camera passes into the house, and there we find Ophélie (the inventively named character played by Ophélie Bau) wrapped up in one of (credit where it's due) Kechiche's well-drawn sex scenes. She kneels on a bed and arches her back, as the energetic man who left his moped outside thrusts from behind and reaches his arm round the front her to play with her clit.
The scene has its merits, both for its realism, and for its patience - because it dedicates time to this scene, rather than just being the 10 second cinematic set piece that we see time and time again in films. But in other ways, this scene does also feel like it's a little lame. Immediately it kind of feels like Mektoub, My Love is back on obvious ground. It's like the film seems to be saying the kind of thing that Kechiche's films are always saying. A) Sex is great. B) This film is French, and the French are big on sex. We get it; both messages received, you can stop now, Kechiche.
In terms of plot, of course, things are a bit more interesting. We do learn from this scene that the sprightly Ophélie (essentially this film's answer to Emily Ratajkowski) is actually having an affair with Amin's dashing Tunisian mate Tony. And what follows is perhaps an hour and a half in which the film explores this affair and Amin's ambiguous relationship to the seemingly irresistable Ophélie. For this part, at least, Mektoub, My Love seems to remain on semi-gender neutral grounds.
The bodies of both sexes do seem to be objectified by Kechiche's camera to some extent in this act, and what the director captures is essentially a large teenage epic about a group of friends who are all trying to find love, fulfilment and sex. Meanwhile, key "players" Ophélie and Tony rather emphatically set about trying balance having a lot of sex with hiding an affair that literally the entire village already seems to know about. Tony, of course, is very much your basic bitch too, with him constantly being egged on by Ophélie to have casual sex with EVERY WOMAN HE EVER SEES so that he can (somewhat redundantly) help hide their affair.
The whole cast then seems to flit between states of love, jealousy and heart-break around them, as Amin seems to just float about. But it would be a bit of a lie to say that the genders are treated equally even in this less affronting half of the movie. Kechiche's camera definitely leers at the young French actresses in their seemingly ever present bikinis and shorts skirts much more than it does the film's young men.
Let's also make very clear how far away this film is from EVER passing the Bechdel Test, especially seeing as literally every female character in this film does little more than talk about stuff that relates to men. This is something that constantly goes on, and is often quite in contrast to Amin, who manages to repeatedly show independence from women and bang on about how he wants to be a filmmaker (autobiography much?).
What's more, Mektoub, My Love definitely gets consistently worse as it goes along. In fact, this is so much so the case that ultimately it comes to see like Kechiche is just popping two fingers at anyone who had any prior objections to Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Rather despicably, this piece of defiance amounts to little more than a real masterpiece of lecherousness, with the camera just slowly leering at ever greater length at the young cast's energetic bodies.
It's an experience that I would describe as being really rather like sitting on a couch as the director next to you can't manage to not bust into a wank for more than five minutes. Except it's that for three fricking hours.
In fact, if you ask me, Kechiche might as well have just written a 180 page screenplay saying nothing more than, "God I wish I was young again, and God I really love women." The irony is that it gradually comes to feel like that's really all he did with this film.
As Mektoub, My Love slowly descends into just a constant stream of consciousness of scantily clad forrays onto the beach, and equally scantily clad nights out, you begin to feel like you've experienced the exact same conversations about Tony and the exact same twerking bum close ups maybe six or seven times. And sadly, that's not even an exaggeration.
Now to be fair to Kechiche, maybe some credit is due, because the sort of joie de vivre that he captures of the French and Franco-Tunisian experience does feel quite authentic and full of life. Set in 1994, this film also certainly captures the break-neck hedonism and promiscuity of modern youth (or perhaps youth at almost any time). Plus the film's '90s soundtrack is rather on point. But even if we were all furiously girating to Ride on Time back in the '90s, there really is no need for the sheer level of objectifying and anachronistic twerking that we see in this film.
You get a real powerful sense that Kechiche is just screaming at you that there's nothing wrong with what you are seeing as all his characters slowly hook up. He's just being sex positive, and we all gain a healthy, important pleasure from appreciating the human form. It's all only natural, he seems to be smugly shouting over the music's bass.
And sure, he might well be right: there's a great deal to be said in favour of being sex positive. But there's still just no getting around the fact that the camera in Mektoub, My Love leaves you feeling sleazy.
Enjoying beauty and slowly reducing your female characters to little more than a platoon of shaking asses (as this film does by its final hour) is simply not the same thing. In fact, you almost go blue in the face with the sight of Ophélie Bau's ass in your face by the end. And detaching the female characters' personalities from what increasingly becomes a wall of dancing flesh is just not really on. Not even young children seem to be safe either, as by the end of Mektoub, My Love even an innocent mother and daughter seem to have gotten in on the twerking!
Maybe this is exactly the sort of liberal French film that some people will love, and hail as daring, visceral drama. But I really felt completely and utterly bemused when this film received nothing but adoring applause at a press screening today. Whilst they seem enraptured, I was left feeling like I needed some time in the fetal position to recover my faith in humanity.
All I can say is that I hope to never be subjected to the remaining parts of the trilogy that Kechiche is promising to make!