Times critic Justin Chang is filing regular dispatches from the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, which runs May 14-25 in France.
The first words in “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo,” the longest and by no small margin the worst movie I’ve seen at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, are “Look at me.”
The words are spoken by a young man named Amin (Shaïn Boumédine) to the very beautiful, very naked woman he’s photographing on a beach in the South of France. After a few minutes spent focusing on her face, the movie camera drops down to take in a fuller view of her body, lingering appreciatively on her bare buttocks.
Hers will not be the only posterior subjected to this level of scrutiny. You might say an entire ensemble of female rear ends play the joint protagonists of this three-and-a-half-hour movie, the work of a cinematic maximalist — nay, a gluteus maximalist — operating at the literally butt-numbing nadir of his powers.
In another film you might appreciate a moment like this as an instance of honest, unabashed eroticism, though the movie would have to work up some actual tenderness for that, some expression of feeling beyond a juvenile leer. It’s more likely that you would dismiss it as an instance of everyday prurience on the director’s part, a voyeuristic lapse en route to something hopefully more interesting.
But you can do neither of those things, because this is the latest movie from the French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche, and nothing about it — neither the “Look at me” nor the aggressive butt-cam — is accidental. His critics and admirers alike will probably guess from those opening moments what they’re in for: an act of retaliation, the work of an embattled, controversy-seeking filmmaker who has decided to troll his audience. The movie is playing in the main competition, which suggests the festival might be trolling us too.
Kechiche was last at Cannes six years ago with “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” his radiant coming-of-age drama about a French teenager named Adèle, which became a critical sensation and won the Palme d’Or. It also generated widespread controversy, some of it stemming from the director’s subsequent falling-out with his actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who alleged that he had been abusive and recklessly demanding with them on the set. (Kechiche has since been embroiled in #MeToo controversy; in 2018 he was accused of sexual assault by an actress, a charge that he has denied.)
And then there was the matter of the movie’s long and explicit lesbian sex scenes, which some interpreted as the work of a male director captivated less by the emotional reality of the scenario than by his own carnal fantasies. There was room for debate on that score, and perhaps an opportunity to acknowledge the challenge of exploring human sexuality on camera without a safety net.
Even those who slammed “Blue Is the Warmest Color” as a particularly toxic example of the male gaze at work had to concede that the movie was more than the sum of its sex scenes. It was a credible and moving love story, for one, built on two raw, enveloping performances — especially from Exarchopoulos, who disappeared into the role of a young woman growing up, emotionally and intellectually, before our eyes. Kechiche seemed at least as interested in the condition of Adèle’s mind and heart as he was in the shape of her body.
The same plaudits didn’t greet Kechiche’s next film, “Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno,” an adaptation of a novel by François Bégaudeau and a prequel to this movie. Reviewing “Canto Uno” at the 2017 Venice International Film Festival, the Variety critic Guy Lodge described it as a “gorgeous three-hour study of young, attractively housed hearts in often turbulent motion” but noted that Kechiche’s prurient eye was “inconsistent with the otherwise empathetic, thoughtful characterization of its female ensemble.”
I haven’t managed to see “Canto Uno,” which was never released in the U.S., but went to see “Intermezzo” in Cannes anyway. I suspected that no prior familiarity with the movie’s young and beautiful Franco-Tunisian characters would be necessary, given the immersive sweep of Kechiche’s filmmaking and his lack of interest in conventional narrative. My hunch turned out to be correct, though for much worse reasons. Kechiche seems to have lost whatever interest he may have had in his characters to begin with, apart from an endless appreciation of their physical attributes.
Playing out in something close to real time over a single afternoon and evening, “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo” is a numbingly obtuse experience, a feat of maddeningly indulgent non-storytelling hiding behind a symphony of bared midriffs and jiggling derrières. After an opening 30 minutes or so eavesdropping on the characters as they splash, chat and eat on a beach, the movie shifts to later that evening at a neon-drenched nightclub, where they spend hours dancing, flirting and making out.
For all the simmering emotional undercurrents, the talk is perversely uninteresting. The camera loves the women’s faces, but it loves their bottoms more, so much more. For every five-minute stretch of banal chatter, you get a 10-minute crotch-level shot of the girls twerking up a storm. Their stamina is extraordinary; yours may not be.
A moment of respite arrives only when Amin’s friend Ophélie (Ophélie Bau) pulls a man into the restroom for a protracted, graphic and seemingly unsimulated 13-minute cunnilingus scene, accompanied by vigorous spanks and slobbery kisses, all of it captured by the camera in highly athletic, sink-straddling detail.
Elsewhere in the club, two other women talk about their appreciation for men’s buttocks, the range of shapes and sizes they prefer. It’s a disingenuous attempt to pre-empt criticism: See, these women have agency! They have desires of their own! No illustrative male nudity is forthcoming, of course; Kechiche limits himself to exactly the perspective his critics have accused him of adopting. With every passing minute, every nose-rubbing cutaway to another rump shot, you can sense a filmmaker freely and gleefully disgorging his own bile.
To be clear: I have no objection to explicit depictions of sexuality, and I would scarcely be able to do my job if I thought every movie shot through the male gaze — a very specific term from feminist theory that has been thrown around with alarming recklessness of late — were worthy of censure. I don’t even really object to a director operating from a place of spite, provided that it leads them somewhere interesting or productive.
I have every objection, however, to a filmmaker as gifted as Kechiche — the Kechiche who made “Blue” and “The Secret of the Grain” and “Games of Love and Chance” — turning his aesthetic shortcomings into the cheapest of provocations, and turning his actresses’ bodies into bludgeoning instruments. Kechiche doesn’t just sell out his characters, his story and his collaborators; he sells out his own talent.