Abdellatif Kechiche Mektoub My Love: Canto Uno

Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno’s non-eventfulness is radical

Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial, long-delayed follow-up to the divisive Blue Is the Warmest Colour is as impressive as it is hopelessly out of touch.

How to make sense of Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno, a movie that feels so out of touch with current sensibilities? Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche (who gained notoriety and fame for his Palme d’Or winning epic Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a film celebrated as one of the great French films of the past decade and also condemned as evidence of the director’s lecherous male gaze and allegedly abusive on-set demeanour), Mektoub leans into what many perceive as his greatest flaws as a filmmaker.

Mektoub features a leering hyper-sexualized gaze that, some argue, renders his female subjects as objects. It is a film with an insane amount of “ass” shots. With the film’s Montreal’s release date several years removed from its first screening in 2017 at the Venice Film Festival, there’s room for some perspective on Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno’s quality… or lack thereof. 

Not much happens in Mektoub, My Love. Set during summer vacation in the South of France, young people live out their vacations swimming, dancing and fucking. As the film opens, our protagonist, Amin (Shaïn Boumedine) arrives at the village where his parents own a restaurant and goes to visit his friend Ophélie (Ophélie Bau). Loud music is playing as he gets closer and then, the unmistakable sounds of sex. Looking in the window, he sees the beautiful Ophélie having sex with his friend Tony (Salim Kechiouche). The scene lingers as Amin watches and the camera takes in Ophélie’s body. If the voyeurism and worshipping gaze of this scene disturbs or annoys you, it’s probably worth skipping the rest of the film and saving yourself three hours. 

Like a novel haunted by the seed of desire, this moment comes to define the rest of the movie. Amin, a quiet screenwriter and photographer living in Paris, yearns for Ophélie. While the men around him don’t hesitate to indulge in romancing the beautiful women of the film, Amin seems gripped by perpetual shyness. In the model of other great yearners of literature like Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice, his imagination overrides any ability to act. On the one hand, presented as a vaguely noble figure who “sees women for who they really are,” this gives way to the fact that his overt idolatry is as dehumanizing as those of the philanderers who surround him.

Between ass shots, much of the film unfolds in conversation. People talk about and around issues of romance and desire. Unlike the more reference-laden talk of films like Eric Rohmer’s, these discussions feel more rooted in reality. They are spontaneous and unpretentious. Given that so many of the performers have limited or no acting experience, their naturalism gives the film an air of documentary reality. Much of it is mundane and focused on emotions and the little world of this small village. It is a film that is evidently about youthful self-absorption that nonetheless showcases the beautiful freedom of that indulgence. 

Beyond the surface of these discussions, the reality of the character’s motives and emotions come through. As one girl says she’s not jealous, her gaze reveals the opposite. The way that Kechiche can show the true intentions of his characters through his direction of actors and camera placement adds a layer of drama. Whereas it seems as though nothing might be happening, the emotions and desires of characters drive action and tension. The inefficiency of spoken language, loaded with false leads and promises, cannot mask the expressiveness of a face bent in envy or another softened by despair.

As evidenced by Blue Is the Warmest Colour and Mektoub, My Love, it seems that Kechiche views sex as unbridled, animalistic and borderline aggressive. Yet his primary mode in this film is tenderness. Despite Mektoub‘s reputation as a hypersexualized film, there isn’t all that much sex. The anticipation, the seduction and the aftermath hold far more interest to Kechiche and are the central focus of Mektoub. The tenderness between characters, whether romantic or platonic, reveals a more profound bond of human interaction. As much as this is a film about young people fucking, it’s also about young people discovering the beauty of the world — be that the fulfillment of romantic fantasy, or the birth of a baby lamb.

Sex, vitally, remains the central point of interest in the film, even if it doesn’t always end up as the goal or reward for characters. Desire and yearning shape new human interactions and experiences, most of which are conversational and humanizing. It’s also clear that the line between sexual curiosity and objectification will vary greatly. The film’s detractors aren’t wrong when they condemn the film’s gaze, their tolerance for these images set to a different standard that is no more right or wrong than those who are moved by it.

Of course, if you start to go through reviews of the film’s greatest supporters, many of them are men who relate to the gentle intelligence of Amin. The character, clearly an alter-ego for the director, might be the least interesting part of the film. But, in the tradition of many great works of art, he serves less as an audience surrogate than as a passive observer who allows us entry into this world. It is, by and far, the women that hold the most interest. They are sensual, charismatic and laden with contradictions. They seem more real than any of their male counterparts, emboldened by the strength of their desires and the power that commands.

If ever there wasn’t a film for all audiences, it is Mektoub, My Love. Running at nearly three hours, where little happens except vague summertime conversations and lingering shots of female bodies, it is a film that seems destined to disturb and displease. Yet, the film manages to be beautiful and sensual all the same. It evokes the endless days of summer that are motivated by carnal desire, bodies basking in the warm sun, drifting in the waves and insatiable hunger. In a film world dominated by happenings, the non-eventfulness of Mektoub feels comforting, wistful and bright. ■

Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 6. Watch the trailer below.

To read our review of Blue Is the Warmest Colour, click here.

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Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, his follow-up to Blue Is the Warmest Colour