Venice 2017: Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love

This first of two, possibly three, parts was slammed hard on Twitter the moment it premiered in competition in Venice, but, surveying the first wave of reviews, we find that it’s not going to be so easily dismissed outright. Let’s begin with Jessica Kiang at the Playlist:

During the scintillating opening moments of Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno, a young man peers through a window at a couple having gorgeous, abandoned sex, described in tactile, fleshy images of the beautiful young woman’s tousled hair, panting mouth, fuzzy pudenda, dimpled thighs and sweet folds of puppyish flab. It’s an extraordinarily real, sexy sex scene, immediately reminding us of the thrillingly immersive filmmaking of which Abdellatif Kechiche is capable. And in its focus on her flesh and her face, it is a gauntlet thrown down by a filmmaker who has often been criticized for the maleness of his gaze, most recently that of his masterful Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color. But while Mektoub will see him offer no apology for his fixation with the female form (in fact he’ll double down on it as never before, especially that quadrant south of the waist and north of the knees) it lacks anything like the empathy and humane connectivity of Blue. And without a strong story, or particularly interesting protagonist the drama feels even longer than its already wildly overlong 186 minutes. While studded with moments of power and often radiant with the shining, supple loveliness of its cast, this ostensibly energetic dip into the fountain of youth that is a Mediterranean beachside summer could make even the best-disposed viewer feel tired and creaky and ancient.

The objections, then, as bullet-pointed by Jonathan Romney for Film Comment, are: “one, it’s over-long and unfocused, and two, it’s aggressively, indeed lip-smackingly objectifying of its female characters. Mektoub, My Love . . . is worth defending, but those charges are hard to refute. . . . To say that the film is unfocused goes beyond the fact that Kechiche isn’t interested in telling a story: why, indeed, should he? But he seems unable to focus on the essence of the non-story he tells.” As for #2, “You wince at the camera’s undisguised lechery, but the sheer exuberance knocks you over. Mektoub, My Love is perhaps the most unrestrained contribution yet to the long-running cycle of French art films about young people and what they did on their holidays: it’s like Adieu Philippine meets Girls Gone Wild.

“Kechiche transports us into the beds, beaches and bars of Sète, a coastal town in the South of France, with a group of young, horny characters having fun and emotional meltdowns during the summer of 1994,” writes Kaleem Aftab for Cineuropa. “Our central protagonist, Amin (Shaïn Boumédine), is a wannabe scriptwriter and still photographer who is visiting his hometown from Paris for the summer. He observes life, looking for ideas to put in scripts; he retains a distance and is seemingly determined to suppress his impulses. The absence of lust in a world buzzing with hormones creates a curiosity in Amin that gives the movie a tension, but one based on his inner turmoil, rather than melodrama.”

“The film is loosely inspired by the novel La blessure, la vraie from Francois Begaudeau, who also wrote and starred in Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winner The Class,” notes Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter.Mektoub’s screenplay is co-credited to Ghalia Lacroix, the director’s usual co-writer, but here she’s conspicuously not handling editing duties as well, which might explain why the film lacks a sense of focus and direction. 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 him with Amin, the nominal protagonist on whom the film opens and ends.”

Tommaso Tocci for Ioncinema: “It’s the bodies, first and always, that Kechiche is chasing—they’re the pillars of his cinema, the trembling altar on which he lays sand, drops of sweat and salt water, crumpled summer clothes and the hands of pretty much any other character in the movie. It would be reductive to say that they’re always in the frame—they define it completely, almost challenging the viewer to finally surrender to the blur of moving skin. . . . [W]ith its atmosphere of relaxed sexiness, an effortless Rohmerian ring to the dialogue and an archipelago of micro-narratives brushing perfectly against each other, Mektoub, My Love will only alienate those who oppose Kechiche’s drawn-out ogling and uncompromising pacing. For the rest of us, the only regret is not getting to see immediately how the story unfolds, though the suspended epilogue has its own unique charm.”

“Though far from the best Abdellatif Kechiche movie, Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno is certainly the most Abdellatif Kechiche movie,” writes Ben Croll at IndieWire. “As in The Secret of the Grain [2007], this latest film also about very specific Franco-Tunisian identity, but apart from two opening quotations explicitly designed to point out the similarities between the Koran and the New Testament, the director isn’t particularly interested in exploring religious or cultural divides. He does, however, work into the film a message of radical, universal equality: in the Mektoubiverse everyone—man and woman, young and old—looks out at the world with a voyeur’s eye.”

Mektoub My Love: Canto Uno is most consistently rewarding, then, when it revels in simple pleasures of physical movement and nourishment, be it the drunken high of a barroom shimmy or the warm, slurpy comforts of shellfish-tangled spaghetti on the beach,” writes Variety’s Guy Lodge. “It achieves a note of more austere poetry, meanwhile, in a rivetingly extended, documentary-style sequence of lamb birthing that briefly cleanses Mektoub—which translates, somewhat unilluminatingly, as ‘destiny’—of its exhausting whirl of human chaos. A genuine lust for life colors Kechiche’s filmmaking; in this case, his joie de vivre could stand to be a tiny bit more selective.”

More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 3/5) and Lee Marshall (Screen).

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