Film of the week: Mektoub, My Love evokes a golden summer of flirtatious fun

Abdellatif Kechiche’s latest film has already caused a stir, but there’s more to this sprawling celebration of sex, sea and sun than a question of female bodies and the male gaze.

Catherine Wheatley
Updated:

from our March 2019 issue

Lou Luttiau as Céline, Shaïn Boumédine as Amin and Ophélie Bau as Ophélie in Mektoub, My Love

Lou Luttiau as Céline, Shaïn Boumédine as Amin and Ophélie Bau as Ophélie in Mektoub, My Love

In his 2006 book Filmosophy, Daniel Frampton asks what would happen if we put aside the concept of the auteur and instead considered film itself to be a form of thought. How might such an approach change the way we respond to cinema? What new insights might we gain by stepping away from authorial intention? It’s a rather impractical way of going about criticism, but it struck me, watching Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love, that in this case there might be a merit in separating the film from its maker. How differently might I have felt about it, I wondered, if you’d told me it had been made by a 28-year-old woman, say, rather than a 58-year-old man?

Kechiche is a controversial figure, to put it mildly. His most famous film to date, Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013), was dogged by accusations from cast and crew that he was an exacting, even abusive, director. In October 2018, in allegations he has strongly denied, he was accused of sexual assault by an unnamed French actress. His films take on timely concerns – from immigration to class struggle to homosexuality – but view them, his detractors argue, with the same old male gaze; at best he is a bandwaggoning voyeur, at worst a misogynist perv.

Initial responses to Mektoub, My Love would suggest that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Kechiche’s fifth feature – and the first in a possible trilogy – has been lambasted for its drawn-out running time (three hours) and slight narrative, as well as for the countless salacious shots of young female flesh with which he fills the gaps in the story. But there’s a vitality, a freshness to the film that’s almost impossible to resist.

Mektoub, My Love is loosely adapted from François Bégaudeau’s 2011 novel La blessure la vraie, and begins with the return of Amin (Shaïn Boumédine), a twentysomething man who has abandoned his medical studies in pursuit of a career in cinema, to his home city of Sète on France’s south-east coast. We first see him as he peers through the window of a beachfront house at the graphic sight of a young woman having sex with a practically faceless man. This woman is Ophélie (played with astonishing verve by newcomer Ophélie Bau), and she is the first object of the film’s desire: a buxom brunette whose bum cheeks swell out of the bottom of her denim cut-offs like ripe figs.

Mektoub, My Love: Canto uno (2017)

Against a hedonistic backdrop of parties, clubs and beaches, the minutest of Gatsby-esque melodramas – with Amin the Nick Carraway figure – turns around Ophélie’s love triangle with her soldier fiancé Clément and Amin’s cousin Tony. But the film is no more about that relationship than La dolce vita (1960) is about the daily life of a journalist (in fact we never see Clément, and even Ophélie and Tony barely share screen space). Rather, Mektoub is a sprawling celebration of sex, sea and sun, of youthful summers in which days roll into one another and nothing much happens and the future seems to be endlessly deferred.

Set in the mid-1990s, Mektoub, like Luca Guadagnino’s recent Call Me by Your Name (which took place a decade before) is nostalgic for the innocence of an earlier age. This is a time before mobile phones and Skype: Ophélie writes letters to her fiancé in the Gulf; the lovelorn Charlotte, visiting from Paris, must roam from bar to bar searching for her errant beau – though, ironically, the gorgeously skimpy costumes will probably inspire thousands of Insta-feeds and Pinterest pages.

In Mektoub, people and places are golden. The film opens with quotations from the Gospel of St John and the Koran on the light of God; certainly Sète, a down-at-heel fishing port that was also the setting for Kechiche’s 2007 film Couscous (aka The Secret of the Grain) and home to a large French-Tunisian community, has never looked more beautiful. DP Marco Graziaplena appears to shoot mostly early in the morning or evening, when the sun is low in the sky, the air is balmy and a gentle breeze tousles the protagonists’ hair. In a neat bit of editing by Nathanaëlle Gerbeaux and Maria Giménez Cavallo, we cut from a group of characters piling into cars to head to a nightclub straight to the morning after, when they splash and wrestle in the sea, as if both club and beach were part of the same non-stop carnival. It’s a sequence that’s bursting with good health and good humour: you can smell the sun cream, feel the sand under foot (and it’s followed by the greatest spaghetti-eating scene since 1974’s A Woman Under the Influence).

The screenplay, which Kechiche co-wrote with his partner Ghalya Lacroix, is warm, frequently funny (“Have you met Belmondo?” one character asks Amin, on discovering that he lives in Paris) and feels largely improvised. The scenes of women talking among themselves are tremendous, whether it’s Charlotte and her friend Céline sizing up the male talent, or the magnificent bitching of the older generation – Amin’s mother and aunts – about the promiscuous young women their boys are spending time with.

Ophélie Bau

Ophélie Bau

Above all, Mektoub is a terrific study of the fine art of flirting: of girls and girls, and girls and boys (but never, it seems, boys and boys) and the shifts in power that occur between them as they drink, dance, smile and shrug. Graziaplena’s camera moves nimbly among the group, seemingly joining in with their fun. Inattentive, easily distracted, it flits from one couple to the next, switching its focus with the same ease that these friends and lovers switch partners.

Make no mistake, the camera also spends a lot of time salivating over female flesh, peering down tops and up skirts, moving in – seemingly unmotivated by character or POV, on each of the many occasions that Bau undresses and dresses. But these young women are no fools. On several occasions, Amin asks to take Ophélie’s photo (nude, naturally); when she demurs, he claims that she’s protesting and posing at the same time. Of course, there’s something extremely uncomfortable about watching a man tell a woman that her no is effectively a yes (Amin’s smirking description of Charlotte as “receptive” is similarly nauseating). At the same time, the scene underlines an important point, which is that these women are aware of being watched, and their performance – at the beach, in the bedroom – is both conscious and complicated.

In Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a male gallerist tells protagonist Emma that depictions of women in art are always depictions of male pleasure. The great John Berger put it more subtly when he wrote: “Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.” What’s often so fascinating about Kechiche’s films is the way that his female characters – and actresses – work to control these processes. One need only think of the indelible scene of Hafsia Herzi (who appears in Mektoub as Amin’s aunt) belly dancing in Couscous. To paraphrase one character, these women put on a good show. In the film’s most stunning moment, Bau glances for a split-second into the camera, as if delivering a knowing wink to the audience.

As vibrant as these young women are, though, their male counterparts are often plain, even ugly, and – more to the point – undeveloped as characters. None more so than Amin, who is something of a vacant centre here. Smiling beatifically and saying little, he lacks the prudishness of Melvil Poupaud in A Summer’s Tale (1996), the arrogance of Romain Duris in L’Auberge espagnole (2002) or the melancholy of Xavier Lafitte in In the City of Sylvia (2007), all films that bear comparison with Mektoub. He’s not nerdy, or shy, or even particularly creepy. He’s merely banal.

As a result, the film emerges – no doubt unwittingly – as a faintly damning critique of cinematic voyeurism. It may indeed be the same old male gaze; but that’s by far the least interesting thing about Mektoub.

 

  • Sight & Sound: the March 2019 issue

    Sight & Sound: the March 2019 issue

    The versatile and complex performances of Barbara Stanwyck; plus If Beale Street Could Talk, Burning, Capernaum and our annual obituaries round-up.

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