Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno

The Arabic word “mektoub” can be roughly translated as “fate” or “it is written,” so in theory, Abdellatif Kechiche will be able to look at the reviews of his latest film—which premiered this week in competition in Venice—and shrug, “Mektoub, my love.” Except that Kechiche isn’t one simply to shrug anything off. He’s made a reputation for being cantankerous by very openly issuing a rejoinder to Léa Seydoux, the star of his Cannes Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color, after she accused him of mistreatment during the shoot; he’s also notoriously prickly about critical responses. So no doubt he’ll have plenty to say about the reaction to Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno, which has attracted critical ire at the Venice Film Festival (and a few press-screening boos) for two main reasons: one, it’s over-long and unfocused, and two, it’s aggressively, indeed lip-smackingly objectifying of its female characters.

Mektoub, My Love—or at least, the first of what may prove to be a series of “cantos”—is worth defending, but those charges are hard to refute. Taking the first separately: the Tunisian-born French director has always made long films, insisting on letting his fictional worlds expand and breathe as they need. In particular, 2007’s The Secret of the Grain unfolded a vast social panorama of the population of the Southern France fishing port of Sète, focusing on the members of a North African family. The film had crackling narrative tension, as well as the kind of seemingly spontaneous ease in its ensemble acting that suggested Kechiche had hit a vital new seam in the apparently depleted mine of French realism.

Mektoub, My Love takes Kechiche back to Sète, and to the same world—many of the characters are from a Tunisian family in the restaurant trade. This time, however, the film pretty much abandons narrative thrust and instead just spends time with its characters over a single summer; the main carrot it dangles in terms of story is to make us wonder whether its young hero, aspiring screenwriter Amin (newcomer Shaïn Boumédine) will ever stop grinning sweetly and actually make out with any of the beautiful young women who surround him. In the meantime, Kechiche regales us with scene after scene of hanging out on the beach, in bars and restaurants, at the disco (in a dauntingly long, relentlessly single-note sequence near the end), and at one point, an oasis of calm amid the frenzy, at a farm for the birth of some lambs.

Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno

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, which seems to circle restlessly, its concentration constantly distracted as characters vie loudly and exuberantly for the camera’s attention. It’s notable that the film isn’t edited by Kechiche’s partner Ghalia Lacroix this time, although she gets a co-writing credit, while things feel so loosely haphazard that it’s surprising to learn that the film is based on a novel, La Blessure, la vraie, by François Bégaudeau (who co-wrote and starred in Laurent Cantet’s The Class).

The film begins with our hero framed cycling against a sunny sky, with quotations from the Gospel of St. John and the Koran identifying the film’s theme, the light of God. Mektoub subsequently comes across as a sunny hymn of glorification, but there’s nothing pious about it. Amin stops off at a beachfront house to peer through a window and watch a young couple making love—and to let us watch them at length in as graphic, sweaty detail as he presented the female lovers in Blue Is the Warmest Color. There’s a difference, though: throughout that film, we got to see both women, in close-up and in globally exposing wide shot. Here, though we get to explore pretty much every corner of Ophélie (played by terrifically charismatic and unrestrained newcomer Ophélie Bau), we see next to nothing of her male partner Toni. Kechiche would surely have gratified a huge swathe of his audience by showing a bit more of Salim Kechiouche, whose bottom presumably matches his matinee-idol looks. But the sequence is shot almost as if he’s not there—or perhaps it’s just that I was distracted by Bau’s physique, and by the fact that the couple are getting it on to Neil Diamond’s song “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” on repeat (even for France in 1994, when the film is set, this seems an unusual practice).

Once Toni, Amin’s Lothario cousin, has left on his food-delivery bike, the scene really warms up. In walks Amin, a friend of Ophélie from way back, the flustered young woman puts on a show of being taken unawares—gosh, you took me by surprise, I only just got out of bed, that sort of thing—and the entirely chaste conversation between the couple takes on a tantalizing charge. She knows that he knows he’s just caught her in bed with his cousin, and wants him to know she knows; the spontaneous-seeming mutual agitation and the thinly disguised sexual confidence that Ophélie exudes almost makes you think that this second couple are going to leap into bed right there and then. They don’t, they just go for a walk, but the film constantly has you thinking that characters are permanently on the verge of getting it on with each other—partly because they are. Everyone, that is, except Amin.

Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno

He, it turns out, is an artistic, solitary soul. He’s back in town from Paris, where he’s been spending his time taking photos and writing a science-fiction script. He’s a handsome lad, with a broad Belmondo grin, but he walks alone—and seems to generate an invisible warning sign reading, “No sex today, please.” At one point, he’s said to have walked a Russian girl home after a dance; he says they talked about books and films, and you suspect they did just that. There’s no suggestion that Amin is gay or asexual, just an artist, preoccupied with higher things, such as watching the people around him (and implicitly, writing this movie about them). In other words, he’s a Kechiche surrogate, and as with the director, you sometimes want to give Amin a shake and tell him to lighten up.

Kechiche, though, has lightened up plenty this time. Despite a solemn Director’s Statement for the film (“I would like to restitute to cinema its sacred dimension, the sense of going to the movies as if partaking in a ceremony”), it’s like he’s really here to enjoy the sunshine and look at the girls. The next big scene has Toni and Amin heading for the beach, where champion pick-up artist, or dragueur, Toni makes the moves on two young women. One, Charlotte (Alexia Chardard), is kissing Toni in the water within about two minutes of “Mind if we sit down?” while her friend Céline (Lou Luttiau) makes polite, only mildly flirty conversation with Amin. The fact that Luttiau looks rather slightly like Emmanuelle Chaulet, who played the shy heroine of Eric Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987)—and Kechiche is clearly referencing the Rohmer strain of summer-holiday romantic comedy—suggests that Céline will be the nice sweet girl that nice sweet Amin spends the summer with. (Well, he is nice and sweet, although he’s just indulged in voyeurism—but then so has Keciche, and so have we.)

In fact, Céline proves indefatigably hot to trot—with anyone expect Amin. When she and Charlotte go on a double date with him and Toni, she ends up get together with another cousin, a Hawaiian-shirted doofus in the Bobby Cannavale line, as well as flirting with Amin’s Uncle Kamel (Kamel Saadi), a grinning, boozy reprobate of a baldie and the family clown. For much of the film, Céline can be found happily sitting in Kamel’s lap while the family matriarchs try to pull her away, or getting it on with other women at the disco (where twerking is a big thing, two decades avant la lettre). Kechiche clearly gets a kick from such larks, but the key thing is that the film is entirely nonjudgmental. No one seems to get upset about anything, or jealous, or get their heart broken, and if the girls are having a good time with whoever comes along, they just are; it’s summer, for goodness sake. It’s equally relaxed about the men letting their hair down, or in Kamel’s case, his scalp; constantly pawing at Céline, he doesn’t come across as a predatory lecher, just an irrepressible old charmer.

Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno

Kechiche wants to celebrate women’s bodies and their sexuality, but can’t help coming across like Tex Avery’s wolf while he’s doing it (and it’s curious that any unattractive young women seem to have shipped out of Sète for the summer). Whenever Ophélie, Charlotte, and other girls are on screen, in bikinis, mini-dresses, or micro-shorts, Marco Graziaplena’s camera always manages to hovering somewhere near an ass or a thigh. In the disco scene, it even tilts to catch an up-skirt shot of Hafsia Herzi (from The Secret of the Grain) as Amin’s liberated young aunt. When the camera tilts down their bodies as if to check out how little they’re wearing, you can almost hear a Homer Simpson voice going, “Mmm… midriff…” Meanwhile, he refuses to be even tentatively even-handed in sexual representation, as in the strange erasure of Toni in the sex scene.

In one shot, we glimpse a book on Renoir in Amin’s room (I’m guessing it’s the painter, although it could be Jean). The reference seems to be Kechiche’s way of placing himself in the lineage of French art, saying, “These men painted women’s bodies con amore, why shouldn’t I?” In one scene, Amin suggests to Ophélie that she might let him photograph her naked; she refuses, although she’s clearly keeping her options open. But the uncomfortable thing is that Amin, neither shy nor sly in his request, is presented as wanting to take the pictures for purely aesthetic purposes. He’s an artist—he tends to stay in his room a lot, sometimes watching Russian silent movies—and as such, he’s somehow above sex, or beyond it. Yeah, right—and if only Kechiche had had him explain to Ophélie that his shots of her would be purely for masturbatory purposes, the scene would have felt a lot more honest.

The film altogether feels bogus in its elision of Amin’s sexuality. At the end, he goes in search of the Russian girl. She’s not around, although a beautiful friend of hers is, and makes a move on Amin. But he declines with a polite smile; perhaps she’d have done better if, instead of trying to kiss him, she’d asked him his favorite Tarkovsky film. Amin doesn’t come across as shy or asexual—he’s outgoing, and easy around women. But his detachment and noble devotion to his artistic calling make him seem a little ridiculous—or like Keciche’s way of insisting that he himself is just observing, not getting off on any of it.

Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno

Amin’s artistic calling comes to the fore in a scene that some viewers could find preposterous, although it’s at the heart of the film. He goes to the farm where Ophélie works, and hunkers down alone waiting for the pregnant sheep to give birth. When it happens, the sight of a ewe’s trembling mouth movements raises the tension enormously, and when a lamb drops out to be licked clean by its mother, to the soaring accompaniment of a classical aria, the effect is almost shockingly corny in its obviousness, yet intensely movingly.

The scene is as irreducible a signifier of the real as any of the lush, defiantly un-Hollywood bodies that Kechiche admires. But perhaps more intense an evocation of realness is the extraordinary acting, especially in ensemble scenes. You really feel that these characters are being spontaneous, even though you know that the effect is painstakingly contrived through editing and through Kechiche’s endurance approach to directing actors. But everything feels both real and wildly energetic: the scenes where everyone’s talking over each other; the first, astonishingly vibrant scene between Amin and Ophélie; the scene where the older women in the film chat, including Amin’s mother: it all carries a furious energy that’s extremely rare in French or any other cinema. As for the disco scene, interminable though it is, it feels as unrestrained as if Kechiche had simply spiked the drinks at the wrap party and filmed the result. 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.

Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.