By Preston Wilder
Another week, another film for non-Anglophones – but it’s not like you have to watch Mektoub, My Love in its brief, Greek-subtitled window at the multiplex (it screens till Tuesday, then makes way for Avengers: Endgame). It’s also available on DVD and assorted streaming sites – even if it’s not as high-profile as Blue is the Warmest Colour, the previous film from director Abdellatif Kechiche which won the Golden Palm at Cannes. Thereby hangs a tale, perhaps – because the Palm came with some controversy, the female stars of Blue accusing the Franco-Tunisian director of having bullied them. Mektoub may have prompted a backlash, especially since it doesn’t exactly reassure those who’d charge Kechiche with being sexist.
The so-called ‘male gaze’ is everywhere here. The camera lingers over busty young women, panning across their bodies. They rub against each other, and stick out their bottoms invitingly. There’s an older ‘uncle’ (Kechiche himself is 58) who flirts with the girls and arguably harasses them – yet the film views him as an amiable rascal and a life force, with no suggestion of creepiness. The mood is macho, the sex mostly hetero; lesbian attraction is okay (Blue is the Warmest Colour was also a romance between two women) but gay men are conspicuously absent, and there’s zero indication that our young hero Amin – who seems curiously withdrawn from the hedonistic goings-on around him – may be otherwise inclined.
The film feels out of step with the culture, which of course isn’t always a bad thing. It’s out of step in another, more exciting way too: at a time when most world-cinema product is small-scale and cautious, sanded down by workshops and funding bodies, Mektoub is expansive, capacious, compulsively gregarious and full of energy. This is a 181-minute movie (the same length, coincidentally, as Avengers: Endgame) which would be about half as long if you took out all the instances of people kissing each other hello – either twice or three times, in the French manner – introducing themselves, dancing, flirting, saying ‘I’ll go get some drinks’, etc; it recalls Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain from 2007, another tale of a noisy, uninhibited and often self-destructive Arab family. The energy isn’t a sparkling joie de vivre as, for instance, in Call Me By Your Name (this is not a book-reading crowd); it’s a raucous, demotic spirit with a hint of irresponsible escapism. Ophélie (Ophélie Bau) has an unseen auntie who’s in hospital with cirrhosis of the liver, unsurprisingly given all the drinking that goes on in the movie. “It’s serious,” admits Ophélie – “but what can you do? That’s life.”
One might surmise that the film contains multitudes, but in fact it’s surprisingly empty given its length. (It’s the first in a trilogy, its full title being Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno; maybe later films will flesh out the characters.) Amin (Shaïn Boumedine) flounders aimlessly, hardly changing at all over the film’s three hours. Most of it consists of long dialogue scenes where characters gossip, make small talk, and sometimes come on to each other. The best of these scenes have a wonderful tension – especially the first one, after our hero peeks at Ophélie and his cousin Tony having sex (a graphic, very sensual sequence) then rings the doorbell; Tony scoots off and a flustered Ophélie welcomes Amin, who’s just back from Paris, asking after his parents, his plans and so forth, all the while trembling with coital pleasure as her body gradually subsides back to normal. Mektoub is all energy, the energy of bodies and desires, the libidinous flow between people.
There are no real dramatic stakes here. We don’t even care overmuch (he certainly doesn’t seem to) about when and whether Amin will get his rocks off, like Tony and the rest of his oversexed buddies. There’s occasional reference to our heroes being caught between France and Tunisia (they argue over how to say ‘I love you’ in Arabic), but you couldn’t call it a theme. The film doesn’t even look that inviting, considering it’s set by the sea in the south of France; maybe it needed the voluptuous texture of being shot on celluloid as opposed to video, though it would’ve made its group scenes prohibitively expensive. Like its pushy skirt-chasers chatting up girls on the beach, Mektoub is too much – yet there’s also something thrilling about its too-muchness.
Kechiche is self-indulgent, yet he’s also looking for something – some essential truth about life which he’s willing to wrest from his actors by any means necessary, physically wearing them down like he wears down the audience. Not much happens in this movie, not just plot-wise but even psychology-wise; the truths being offered are shallow, so I guess the film must be a failure – yet there’s also a scene at the farm (Ophélie has a farm) where a ewe gives birth and the camera watches in real-time, the miracle of life taking place before our eyes as a newborn lamb totters around in a daze, its mother licking amniotic fluid from its body. Then we cut to a disco, playing Dr. Alban’s chintzy 90s hit ‘Sing Hallelujah’. Only movies can do this.
DIRECTED BY Abdellatif Kechiche
STARRING Shain Boumedine, Ophélie Bau, Salim Kechiouche
In French, with Greek subtitles
France 2017 181 mins