A Summer of Love, One Dance at a Time: Kechiche’s Sprawling, Circular Poem Follows in the Footsteps of Blue
It’s only the first part for now (with a second and possibly a third to come, starting in 2018) but Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno stands on its own as a breezy three-hour drama that’s full of life and longing, plus the promise of a future not yet written. Taking just a few story elements from the novel La blessure, la vraie by Francois Bégaudeau, Palme d’Or winner Abdellatif Kechiche continues to build – stylistically and dramatically – on the handheld looseness and naturalism that made Blue is the Warmest Color such a lasting success. However the difference in format, with a more stringent focus on time and space here and the continuation of the story in future films, leaves room for new developments.
It’s the summer of 1994 in Sète, France. The city’s port connects France with Tunisia and Morocco, and it’s from here that Amin’s family used to take a boat to Hammamet. Tunisia is now a distant memory, with the boy trying to make a life for himself in Paris. He dropped out of his medicine course, opting for screenwriting and photography instead. He may not have met Belmondo yet, but that’s just because they don’t live in the same neighborhood.
Back in Sète for his vacation, Amin joins his cousin Tony (Salim Kechiouche), old friend Ophélie (Ophelie Bau, reaping the benefits of Kechiche’s obsessive casting process and her own dominating screen presence) and a vast, ever-expanding (thanks to random pickups at the beach and bustling activity around the family’s Tunisian restaurant) network of friends for an endless cycle of drinks, strolls, clubs and fleeting romance in all its permutations. People try each other on for size, in an impressively graceful and pain-free (well, most of the times) waltz that is nonetheless anchored by Ophélie’s central role.
With beautiful girls coming and going around Amin, it’s the old friend who’s perhaps something more than just a summer flirt. The movie certainly seems to think so, treating us to an explosive first scene that establishes Tony and Ophélie’s sexual relationship as well as Amin’s considerate penchant for detached participation. Once Tony sneaks out of the room, the playful, textured familiarity between the partially unaware Amin and Ophélie is fully fleshed out and seems to hint at something more to come. It’s the first of many demonstrations of Kechiche’s mastery of naturalistic dialogue and layered subtext, but will it count for anything when the summer music stops? That’ll be for mektoub (fate) to decide.
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.
While not likely to be news for anyone familiar with Kechiche’s work, it’s frankly ridiculous how one-sided this is, with the women unapologetically scrutinized by the director in a way that the male stars could never be. For an early example of how jarring this can be, note the first conversation at the beach between Tony, Amin and the two girls from Nice who’ll become the latest addition to their group. You’ll be familiar with Charlotte and Céline’s entire bodies before fully realizing that’s Kechiouche talking to them.
Amin is the ultimate Kechiche avatar, an observer who fills his outrageously deep, dark eyes with what’s in front of him, aware of the power he’s holding especially when he chooses not to use it. And yet at the same time the director shares the undiscerning voracity of cousin Tony, waving complaints away and inviting us to yet another dance with a cigarette dangling from his lip. You’re the love of my life, he says, pulling us closer into the mix, because what’s the problem?
There are two stunning sequences the movie hinges on, and they belong respectively to the two cousins and their very different approaches. In the first, on a night out at a bar, Tony’s no-holds- barred philosophy propels the film forward and creates a web of interpersonal links that are pure joy to watch. This is Kechiche at his best, his camera nimbly hopping from character to character with remarkable clarity and care for such a plurality of voices. Newcomer Italian DP Marco Graziaplena can frame a gorgeous dusk-tinted beach as strikingly as anybody, but by guiding us through this crowd with such precision he helps Mektoub become a true ensemble. It’s no coincidence that Amin is relegated to the background, uncomfortable at the sight of such a rapidly evolving social landscape.
The second sequence is the true climax of the film, set in a club and filled with regrettable 90s dance classic songs. It’s a 30-minute tour de force of booty-shaking, quickly converging storylines and just pure sensorial overload, weirdly similar to the conclusion of this year’s Mother. You simultaneously laugh, wish it could stop, and appreciate the sense of estrangement you see growing on Amin’s face. The fact that it’s contrasted with Amin’s quiet detour to Ophélie’s farm, taking pictures of sheep giving birth, makes it work even better.
Incredibly easy to watch and like, with 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.
Reviewed on September 7th at the 2017 Venice Film Festival – Competition section. 186 Mins.