Venice review: Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno – Abdellatif Kechiche’s deep pleasure plunge

The Blue Is the Warmest Colour director’s sixth feature, an evocation of early 90s young summer sensualism, is his most exuberant and indulgent yet, skinny on narrative but hungry for hedonist experience.

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Ophélie Bau in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno

Ophélie Bau in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno

Et Dieu… créa Ophélie Bau. But who the hell is she? At the time of writing the internet tantalisingly yields next to no information about the female lead of Abdellatif Kechiche’s sixth, longest, most indulgent, most polarising, most buoyantly exuberant feature Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno, other than that she is the female lead of Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno.

A strikingly sensual and beautiful twentyish actress with more than a curvaceously old-school hint of Claudia Cardinale by way of Brigitte Bardot, she was the find of the 2017 Venice Film Festival, where the problematic gestation of this ambitious enterprise finally concluded. For Bau, however, this is just the beginning: “nouva nudissima star lanciata da Abdellatif Kechiche” [approximately: new topless star launched by Abdellatif Kechiche], raved one Italian outlet.

She’s the heart and soul and guts of the picture, easily first among equals in a teeming ensemble, as comfortable in beach and bar as she is sorting out the goats on her family’s dairy-farm. If bookies bet on next February’s César for Most Promising Actress, the mysterious Mlle Bau would be a short-priced favourite to emulate Kechiche discoveries Sara Forestier (L’Esquive (Games of Love and Chance), 2005), Hafsia Herzi (Couscous, 2008) and Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Colour, 2013); Yaima Torres, from Black Venus (2011), was also nominated.

Salim Kechiouche as Tony

Salim Kechiouche as Tony

This prize probably means even more to Kechiche than the 2013 Palme d’Or, which he shared with his two Blue Is the Warmest Colour female leads (much to his subsequent vocal chagrin). In June the prickly auteur, who tigerishly defends his outsider status within French cinema, announced he was flogging off his award to complete a project whose unexpected post-production bifurcation into two separate films (reportedly subtitled Les Dés sont jetés and Pray for Jack) had panicked distributor Pathé.

The Venice-premiered picture bears the multilingual original moniker Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno; ‘Mektoub’ is routinely translated as ‘destiny’, but the word (transliterated in English as ‘Maktub’) actually means ‘written’, as in the famous line from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám about “the moving finger” of God which “writes; and, having writ, moves on”.

Officially taking his inspiration from François Bégaudeau’s 2011 novel La blessure, la vraie – the author also wrote the book that Laurent Cantet filmed as Palme-winner The Class – Kechiche transfers the action from the countryside to the Mediterranean port of Sète (location of Couscous); updates the time-frame from a Chernobyl-haunted 1986 to August 1994; and replaces Bégaudeau’s autobiographical, 15-year-old Leninist protagonist François with Amin (Shaïn Boumedine), an easy-smiling, easy-going university student, home from Paris for the holidays.

Shaïn Boumedine as Amin

Shaïn Boumedine as Amin

Amin is at a professional crossroads, having decided to quit a medical career in favour of cinema: he’s a photographer and budding screenwriter, working on a sci-fi opus “set in 2020-22” about a human/robot romance. These are analogue days: he writes on a typewriter, watches (silent) movies on VHS, takes pictures on film. Kechiche’s choice of chronological setting is tellingly specific: we’re in the (record) 14th year of François Miterrand’s centre-left presidency, the ‘InterNet’ has yet to reach the provinces, and there’s just one fleeting reference to a mobile phone.

Kechiche is palpably fascinated by how people simply dealt with each other in these more technologically ‘innocent’ days. He lets conversations play out, improv-style, at considerable length, during days and nights spent in laidback hedonism: sunbathing, flirting, eating, listening to (ever-present) music, the casual euphoria of dancing, the not-really-so-serious business of love-making. It’s tempting to call this kind of thing ‘novelistic’ but plot-wise we’re more in the realm of photo-roman than nouveau roman: indeed, the petty rivalries and jealousies and on-off romances which constitute the narrative spine could be aptly summed up by a few pages of monochrome stills in Jackie magazine.

Amin is the Apollonian observer, looking on at the Dionysian exploits of his cousin (once removed) Toni (Salim Kechiouche): quite literally so, in the extended opening sequence during which Amin peeping-toms at the window while Toni and Ophélie hurl themselves into the throes of (convincing) coitus while Neil Diamond’s Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show blares out of a bedside radio. Soon after, the cousins meet a pair of shapely visitors from distant Nice: Charlotte (Alexia Chardard) and Cécile (Lou Luttiau), who are intoxicated by the liberated, Tunisian-flavoured ambience of Sète. Kechiche’s attention shifts and drifts between his characters – halfway through, the cousins’ happy-go-lucky aunt Camelia (Herzi) shows up unannounced – with a beguilingly Altmanesque looseness.

Mektoub, My Love: Canto uno (2017)

Eschewing melodrama, he barely even has any time for drama: the characters talk, eat, talk some more… Until an orgiastic final hour almost entirely taken up by a group trip to the city’s mega-disco. There they gyrate endlessly to contemporary dancefloor hits (the big wow that summer in France was five-week number one I Like To Move It by Reel 2 Real & The Mad Stuntman). Marco Graziaplena’s widescreen, handheld cinematography showcases the female body in near-incessant motion: close-ups of breasts and buttocks abound – did they really twerk in 1994? – in male-gazey scenes that recall but audaciously go far beyond the ten-minute Herzia belly-dance that brought Couscous to its raucous conclusion.

Is Kechiche simply blowing off creative steam here after the emotional heavy-lifting (on-screen and off) of Blue Is the Warmest Colour? Or are we seeing a genuine artist scorning self-restraint and deliberating amping up his personal aesthetic to the ultimate, experimenting with the minimalisation of narrative while keeping one foot on the commercial-cinema floor (a trick most recently pulled off by Gregory Jacobs’ Magic Mike XXL)? “I appreciate all that’s good in life: alcohol, girls, guys, vacations,” someone exclaims at one point. “L’important c’est d’aimer,” sighs another, a nod to the late Andrzej Żuławski’s amour fou chronicle.

But despite the my-summer-of-love vibe, Kechiche transcends simple nostalgia – Amin is only partly an authorial surrogate – and is as concerned with immersing us in an upbeat vision of human interaction as he is in glorifying the female form. Edited to idiosyncratic, offbeat rhythms by two women (Nathanaëlle Gerbeaux and Maria Giménez Cavallo) and co-written by Kechiche with a third – his wife Ghalia Lacroix – Mektoub, My Love is an unruly, polymorphously perverse river of sensations, plunging the willing viewer into a roiling mass of pungent evocations. You’ll float too.

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