'Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno': Film Review | Venice 2017

Palme d'Ugh.

The first film from French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche after his Cannes Palme d'Or winner, 'Blue Is the Warmest Color,' stars veteran Salim Kechiouche alongside newcomers Shain Boumedine and Ophelie Bau.

The long-awaited follow-up to French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Cannes-winning Blue Is the Warmest Color is called Mektoub My Love: Canto Uno and is indeed, well, long. Clocking in at 186 minutes, this is an overly indulgent tale of insouciant summer dalliances between pretty youngsters set in 1994 Sete, the quiet Mediterranean coastal town that was also the backdrop for the director's The Secret of the Grain. Besides the always reliable Salim Kechiouche, who has been working in French cinema and theater since the mid-1990s, the cast is composed of fresh-faced, ready-for-anything newcomers who were no-doubt eager to work with the director who made a star out of Blue's Adele Exarchopoulos and Hafsia Herzi in Grain. (The latter actually appears in an extended cameo here as an aunt who likes to get down and dirty on the dance floor in Kechiche’s most interminably indulgent sequence set inside a nightclub.)

After its bow in competition at the Venice Film Festival, this should travel elsewhere but probably more due to the reputation of the director than the intrinsic qualities of the film itself. Though it is convincingly played and sensually shot, the film has about as much narrative as the characters have parts of their bodies covered on the beach.

Skimpy and practically see-through, especially where women are concerned, Mektoub will also likely ignite a storm of criticism hinging on Kechiche’s unapologetically concupiscent male gaze, which might not only hurt this film’s wider commercial prospects but might even retroactively affect the reputation of his superior Palme d’Or winner, which similarly indulged in drawn-out scenes of sensuality and sex but which were at least tethered to a clear narrative and involved complex and convincingly drawn characters.

Handsome Amin (Shain Boumediene), an aspiring screenwriter living in Paris, has come back to the South for the summer holidays and his first port of call is the home of his equally attractive friend, Ophelie (Ophelie Bau). But when he arrives, he spies her having sweaty sex with his older cousin, Tony (Kechiouche), through the blinds. Though Amin is outside, Kechiche and cinematographer Marco Graziaplena venture inside immediately to capture all of the huffing and the puffing in detail, not only establishing Tony as quite the stud — something that will be confirmed and reconfirmed numerous times — but also lavishing uninhibited attention on Ophelie’s body, another thing the film will continue to do for the rest of its running time. When Amin rings the doorbell not much later, Tony escapes through the backdoor and in the first of the film’s typically meandering conversations, here over beer and strawberries, it becomes clear why: Ophelie has an army boyfriend who’s never there but whom she’s planning to marry one day, so this is just a physical thing she has with Tony that no one can know about.

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. 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.

But despite this, the young man is a bit of a non-entity throughout. Whereas his cousin has a friends-with-benefits relationship with Ophelie and is the first to move in on a new girl, Charlotte (Alexia Chardard), on the beach and then see another girl or two behind Charlotte’s back as they have a summer fling, Amin only seems to exist as the opposite of Tony. The young man is uncomfortable around women, polite to a fault and not interested in them sexually or at the very least not interested in casual sex. He’s the quiet, thinking type, more into in photography and cinema than in being in a relationship, with his mother (Delinda Kechiche, the director’s sister) repeatedly having to tell him to get out of the house and enjoy the sun, the beach and the girls. When Amin asks, in the film’s third hour, whether Ophelie would agree to pose naked for him for some photos, the request really does seem to come from a place of genuine artistic interest more than an admission he might have an eye on her too. Indeed, the whole film almost reads like a prologue to Amin’s possible coming-out story in Mektoub, My Love: Canto Due.

As a character, Amin is vaguely drawn and it is not really clear what he wants out of the summer or indeed life beyond hanging out with his family and friends and perhaps to one day make a movie. There thus isn’t a whole lot of conflict for Amin to deal with, which means Tony becomes more of the star of the show as he carelessly breaks hearts left and right, tries to get girls into a threesome with him and generally seems to be high on life and the opposite sex. But as a dual study of two types of man, the film fails because one of them is simply not that interesting; Amin is the kind of thoughtful and caring person you’d love to have as a close friend but who is boring to watch in a movie.

What makes the material even more problematic is that, especially in the film’s last hour and that infamous disco scene — which lasts over 30 minutes but which, when watching it, feels longer and less interesting than Christian Marclay’s The Clock — it becomes clear that Kechiche and Tony see women only as lust objects. The roving cameras endlessly showcase the ladies letting loose on the dancefloor, engaging in same-sex kissing and rubbing and wriggling their behinds in unapologetically lascivious widescreen closeups (who knew twerking was a thing in 1994?). At one point, Kechiche even goes up a character’s skirt so it becomes clear she’s not wearing anything underneath. Tony and his pals, on the other hand, hang at the bar, trying to score with the ladies while hardly breaking a sweat, while Amin just looks uncomfortable and lost (a bit like this critic by the time this scene came rolling around). 

Yes, these characters are young and want to enjoy themselves during their summer holidays and might get carried away because they get drunk or simply enjoy their freedom to do whatever they want. And yes, Kechiche is a master at creating entrancing images that feel at once naturalistic and out-of-this-world. But when the only two characters that really emerge from the larger group of revelers are a serial heartbreaker interested only in sex and a woman whose main character traits are that she's good at sex and she’s willing to have it with someone else even though she’s engaged, this is a problem. And when Mektoub, My Love — “mektoub” is Arabic for something like fate or destiny — ends with a supposedly romantic scene that’s so chaste, even Will H. Hays might have suggested it could have used a little more spice, it feels like this film is definitely unsure what it is trying to say.

Production companies: Quat’Sous Films, Occitanie Good Films, Bianca Film, Nuvola Film
Cast: Shain Boumedine, Ophelie Bau, Salim Kechiouche, Lou Luttiau, Alexia Chardard, Hafsia Herzi, Delinda Kechiche, Kamel Saadi, Meleinda Elasfour, Estefania Argelish
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Screenplay: Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalya Lacroix, loosely based on the novel La blessure, la vraieby Francois Begaudeau
Director of photography: Marco Graziaplena
Editors: Maria Gimenez Cavallo, Nathanaelle Gerbeaux
Sales: Pathe Distribution
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)

In French and English

186 minutes