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The Exhaustion of Seduction: Abdellatif Kechiche Pushes the Limits in "Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo"

The "Blue Is the Warmest Color" director follows-up his "Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno" with an immersion into sexualized human exhaustion.
Quentin Carbonell
For the few years I have known his cinema, Abdellatif Kechiche has had a formidable ability to provoke fiery conversations within the industry and the audience equally. His contentious relationship with actors, and actresses especially, has been a hot topic for quite some time and catalyzed by the success of his Palme d’Or-winning Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013). Less publicized, especially abroad, problems with his producers probably led his follow-up, Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno (2017) to a different path, initially expected to premiere at Cannes two years ago but ending up in Venice. The whole situation yet reveals an aura of struggle and conflict that could explain the unique nature of Kechiche’s new film, Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo.
Since its premiere, I profoundly loathed Blue Is the Warmest Color for various reasons, ranging from its cliché social dichotomy and the lack of research and respect of the city of Lille to the safe and male-satisfying sex scenes. It was by far, to me, the worst film I had watched that year in Cannes and, interestingly, seen back to back with one of my favorite of the 2013 vintage, Chloé Robichaud’s Sarah Prefers to Run. Both had similar themes of same-sex desires and how to address them, to put it simplistically, but Robichaud’s first feature did so with a rare elegance, simplicity and subtlety; the radical opposite of Blue. When Mektoub the first came out, I was deeply curious of the follow-up to a film I passionately disliked but was even more interested in the troubles surrounding the film, between the aforementioned producers being sued by Kechiche and the fact that “the film” was now expanded to two to three films.
Because the release of Canto Uno has been nothing but a matter of seconds in theatres in many countries, including the U.K., we purchased a DVD with some friends to do our pre-Cannes homework before catching Intermezzo. As I suspected, and although the exercise proved to be quite different from his Palme winner, I was rather irritated by Mektoub. Where Blue provoked an infinite anger in my heart, ranging from superficial to deeply-rooted issues, I found Canto Uno incredibly vain. Despite its will to represent a certain slice of “real” life, I could not relate to the endless vacuous conversations between these cliché characters, oscillating between the French city of Sète’s beaches, clubs and restaurants, sprinkled with religious transpositions and occasional flings. The only stand-out and exception to this intellectual void is Amin (Shaïn Boumedine), the meta-observation bot in the story. He stares and smiles, both a victim and silent god of his own romantic destiny, at a world of nothingness, except maybe for a never-satisfied flesh hunt. I refuse to believe that the Sète inhabitants Kechiche represents are immune to (and even repelled by) culture, and that Amin, now living in Paris, is their only salvation (a condescending point of view I also found profoundly irritating in Blue Is the Warmest Color). I was also, like many and among other issues, outraged by the film’s point of view: a male gaze striving in objectification of women, whose characters seem not to have an ounce of free will but are radio-guided by the surrounding males’ impulses to make them sit on their lap, feeding them insane amounts of foul compliments, and caressing their bodies in regular and strange rituals of (almost) ever-inconclusive seduction. In other words, as we nowadays say, I was excited to hate-watch Intermezzo with an assumed masochist desire. But after watching the premiere in Cannes, I realize I was unprepared.  
Intermezzo has been, and continues to be, described as a sequel to Canto Uno, which would make sense given the current myth behind the film(s). I however fundamentally disagree with this idea and the fact of evaluating and reviewing it like Mektoub the first. Allow me to explain: Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo is a film that can exist by itself. You won’t need any of the keys present in the initial film to understand (or receive) it. I would also take the safe bet that missing this film would not be an issue to watch Canto Due, should it ever be. The way I understood Intermezzo was as an off-piste belonging to the same universe but taking a radical and different narrative, conceptual, and aesthetical route.  
The film (as of now deprived of any opening logo and ending credits, like Blue when it premiered) opens on a beach scene, still located in Sète, where a mix of known and new female characters play, twerk, and oil their bodies in a similar and instantly irritating, exploitative way as in Canto Uno. The present males, Tony (Salim Kechiouche) and Aimé (Romeo de Lacour), also follow Canto Uno’s old rituals and start preying on the pale and candid Marie (Marie Bernard)—it is to be noted that the film opens, again, with a melancholic quote from both the Bible and the Quran on observation and listening. Repeating the exact same gestures and gimmicks as in the first Mektoub, including Tony’s Aldo Maccione “La classe” signature move, we understand that Marie is already caught in the men’s net, closing it by inviting her to join and therefore surrounding her, as they always do, with their complacent and complicit females friends and cousins. My sensation, reaching the end of this first scene, was to sit within a sadly known world and to expect nothing more than infuriating body shots, repeated vacuous conversations and more social clichés in a Canto Uno duplicate. But as the second scene started, pulling us without warning from the beach and throwing us in an already loud club, the film takes a radical new path. 
Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo was announced as a four hours production, the longest film all sections considered right behind Lav Diaz’s The Halt. As always in Cannes, rumors spread that Kechiche edited the film until the last moment, that he took off thirty minutes and that the French Garde Republicaine had to bring the film over to premiere on time. Although I don’t know if all are true, the fact that the film was definitely amputated from about thirty minutes of footage indicates a continuation of the chaotic industrial and creative story of Mektoub. The duration of the film, even in its current edit of 3h30, already marks a difference with Canto Uno: by adding another 30 minutes, Kechiche demands more from his audience—a playful thought considering that Intermezzo is not a relief from but rather a deeper engagement than Canto. The most important concept, along with the duration, is the structure of the film itself: it is only made of 5 scenes (or 4 if you consider the club scene being interrupted for what will probably be the most discussed moment of Cannes 2019). While the beach scene opening the film unfolds for about 15 minutes, we slowly understand that the club scene will be our main territory.  We will spend around 2h50 in this full-on, music-blasting, body-shivering and rather hostile environment. Viewing this film in the Grand Theatre Lumière and its gigantic screen, at 8H30 in the morning, was without a doubt the most physically draining cinematic experience I have ever lived in Cannes. When watching it, I immediately thought of films like Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho or Tscherkassky’s sensorially challenging creations. Given the amount of “bottom” jokes made in most of the reviews I read, it could be tempting to say that Kechiche created a personal Brakhage Mothlight where the projector’s brightness has been replaced by the club’s stroboscopic lights, the insects and herbs becoming convulsing barely-dressed female bodies holding never-ending drinks bought by pathetic aging men. The physical and musical ordeal delivered by Kechiche is only interrupted by a deeply explicit and long sex scene, until it resumes for another hour or so. When we finally “leave” the club, thanks to a dry cut to Amin’s bedroom, the audience’s collective sigh of relief in front of a still light and deep silence was incredibly significant of the hardship we just shared.
Other factors contribute to the concept that, for me, summarizes the entire film: Being made from, and submitting the audience to, one of the strongest forms of absolute exhaustion. Not only are the duration and construction physically draining for the spectator, but the film neither spares anyone technically or narratively. The framing of the shots and the music’s evolution through time highlight heavily the physical impact of the club environment on the various characters. As with the audience, Mektoub’s inhabitants are thrown into this noisy hell but, on the contrary of us stuck to our seats and unprepared for the three hours ensuing, decide to occupy the entire surface of the stage by teaming up around various dance poles. They then, more mechanically than gracefully, move, twerk, and explore their bodies seen through shots that are, for some, reminiscent of Gaspar Noé’s Climax. Intermezzo features too Lil’ Louis’ Climax song “French Kiss,” used in both films at pivotal moments: Climax slowly turning into a drug-infused dance orgy and Mektoub signalling Marie’s sexual activation—”On t’a chauffé une salope” (“We prepared you a slut”), says Tony with his usual elegance, only to find no one appreciative of his “gesture” this time. Both films show a bunch of people “willfully” trapped into a dancing nightmare, with cameras hovering over their contorted, entwining and shaking bodies while showing their intrigued and aroused audience at the club. However, the more we watch these bodies, the more we can see them getting tired, heavier. Camélia (Hafsia Herzi, from Kechiche’s Couscous) and Mel (Mel Einda El Asfour) can barely open their eyes by the end of the second clubbing part. The various protagonists’ dances gradually turn into stomps and rowing gestures, with the sole exception of the infinitely energetic and strangely smiling Celine (Lou Luttiau), who decides to offer a romantic intermezzo to Amin before “becoming his future girlfriend” (an idea she introduced briefly in Canto Uno). Relating to the opening quote, the one and true observer is Amin. Despite Marie’s attentions, as many others before her in Canto Uno, and his family’s attempts to influence his romantic status, all Amin seems to care about is always watching more, often silently—as he said in the first film, in the club already: “Moi je dis rien” (“Me, I don’t say anything”). But even him, reaching the end of his staring stamina, will also eventually start to feel his eyelids getting heavier, until the brutally freeing switch to the bedroom, ending the film on a similar tone as Canto Uno. The editing is very intense and messy, with bits of previously played songs (including Lil Louis) playing again in later scenes. An assumption could be that not only a lot of footage was rushed frantically (it is said that the film was shot in a bit more than one night during the shoot of Canto Uno), but that the character of Charlotte (Alexia Chardard), arriving fairly late during the club scene, was maybe due to appear earlier originally and edited for coherence. All points accumulated, the audience’s physical exhaustion is definitely tested. 
As bodies get tired, dialogues are also exhausted. In terms of the story, none of what we saw in Canto Uno is needed to understand Intermezzo’s characters and stories. The “plot” itself barely moves, apart from two key elements about Ophelie (pregnant and married in two weeks) and Charlotte (still around) giving an vague idea of how much time passed since Canto Uno. Marie’s novelty will be completely exhausted in just a few hours. The candid, “albeit intellectual,” virginal blond discovered earlier reappears in the club shortly dressed and ready to be consumed by Tony and Aimé. She is, in fact, there physically and verbally “trained” by the two men and their female accomplices. From the naïve girl met at the beach and picked like a flower, she gradually is body-snatched, a shell of her initial self conditioned by the two men but also by the family women telling her over and over she “would be perfect for Amin.” She mindlessly throws herself at him with barely any introduction, executing her mission, only to face an only too familiar impassibility and ghostly presence from the young man. As Amin remains stoic to her kisses and embraces, she is irremediably discarded from the story and these people’s destiny, joining the ranks of the many girls since Canto Uno that could never pierce the heart and mind of the young man.  The same is true for the previous and more “consistent” characters, entertaining conversations anchored in Canto Uno’s recurring topics. They reach the same level of emptiness and superficial commenting ranging from repeated physical compliments, random life facts, and endless drink ordering. Tony, approaching the end of the club scene, explicitly symbolizes this aspect of the film by telling his lover and child-expecting Ophelie (Ophélie Bau) that it is “impossible to talk to her.” He there displays an interesting resignation and exhaustion, also affecting other characters, from constantly circling around the same subjects while never assuming or leading to a deeper conversation, leaving all questions unsatisfied. Even when Ophelie tells him that she wants to have an abortion, Tony keeps asking in a loop what she would like to do but never really fully owns the fact that he wants to keep the baby. Camélia and Mel, as they get tired, start exploring their own hidden desires. Like Tony, they hesitate around the hot subject until it is half-reached, only to circle back to candid hesitations. Their conversation on how they “like bottoms,” concerning both men and women, is another introspective look at the three hours of bodies and sexual questioning we are submitted to. Both women cannot reach an agreement on their favorite “size,” even quoting Ophelie’s attributes as a reference, which Camélia generously gripped and fondled in Canto’s club scene and validating her preferences for “bons culs” (“generous asses”), as she now precises. Eventually, exhausted from this exchange and after their tiresome dance, they will somehow conclude that love is key, nothing really matters and they need a man anyway, both seemingly frustrated and relieved at the same time not to have confessed anything concrete on their sexual preferences. In another surprising moment of vague atonement, Amin’s uncle Kamel (Kamel Saadi) will ask “I’m not a pervert, right?” A strong question since he has been, ever since Canto Uno,  the one to chase after Tony’s abandoned preys, grabbing them whenever possible and being scolded and criticized by the older women of the family for doing so. His only escape is to hide behind other unseen older family male members, saying they were “much worse” to justify his “softer” carnal desires and attitude. But once he and Tony had too much to drink and reach their limit of exhaustion, they just bend over the counter and loop again on the same vain subjects.
The film also remains politically highly unsettling to watch, focusing so much on these strongly sexualized bodies. Kechiche however has chosen very diverse characters and personalities, displaying a wide range of shapes, weights, and ages that could be seen as a trembling collection of Mesopotamian goddesses. While most of us were shocked by the quantity of bottom and breast close-ups, some female observers have raised the fact that many of these bodies have rarely been represented, were more relatable, and women appear more free with their bodies than in other films, including Canto Uno. It is true that the men, beyond Marie’s conversion, quickly turn from predators to sex tools and drunk wrecks (and fail to be seen naked as their female counterparts). I as well heard reactions regarding the fact that the explicit sex scene was solely based on female orgasm, without penetration, and led in its choreography by Ophelie (who accepts Aimé’s sexual advances after being exhausted by his insistence and frustrated by her conversation with Tony regarding their future). However, reports following the premiere, as well as the disappearance of Ophelie Bau from the screening and later press conference, suggest that the scene might have been obtained through the the actors’ absolute exhaustion mixed with regular consumption of alcohol during the shoot, again highlighting Kechiche’s possibly dangerous and already questioned practices in the “name of the real.” Given its pornographic nature, this scene (unless cut out or edited) will result in +18 ratings pretty much everywhere and hampers a potential distribution already compromised by the abysmal results of the first film internationally and the contentious relationships between the various creative and financing powers.
Finally, by its extreme and even experimental nature, Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo might solely belong to museum and academic spaces. Everything yet remains possible with the director’s habit to modify his films; the Cannes cut could be a rare show. Beyond the irritation provoked again by many of Kechiche’s practices, ideas exposed, and the way they are shown, the film gave me the desire to write on a director I profoundly dislike only to insist on the fact that the art of cinema is not uniformly made. As The Image Book  was seen and approached last year in a specific way due to its nature and author, Intermezzo, despite having not much in common with Godard’s formidable film, should also be considered fairly. By this I mean accordingly to the unique, exhausting, and unforgettable (for better or worse) experience it is proposing, while we still need to raise questions on the director’s use and focus of female bodies and falsely naive approach of everyday life.

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Abdellatif KechicheCannesCannes 2019Festival CoverageLong Reads
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