Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno is the first instalment in a trilogy that is destined to be epic in scope if the length and sprawl of this opening is anything to go by. Clocking in at close to three hours, it’s set in 1994, and revolves around the travails of a group of French and French-Arabic twenty-somethings, whose romantic entanglements drench the film with a rich and viscous sensuality. At the heart of it are a pair of cousins, Amin, played by Shain Boumedine, and Tony, played by Salim Kechiouche, and a pair of friends, Charlotte, played by Alexia Chardard, and Celine, played by Lou Luttiau, who are on holiday from the north. From that quartet, a vast romantic and sensuous tapestry grows until it’s difficult to discern any single romantic node by the time the film comes to a close. For all the sensuality, however, there’s only one sex scene, and it takes place in the opening minutes, between Tony and Camelia, played by Hafsia Herzi, a local girl, while Amin is watching on through a window. This graphic, heaving, sensuous sequence more or less plays as softcore art porn, and yet far from leading on to more similar scenes, it results in a film whose entire libidinal landscape plays out as post-coital, or post-orgasmic, suffused with a sense of waning pleasures and increasingly desperate efforts to recapitulate those pleasures. To that end, Keciche suffuses everything in his mise-en-scenes with a ripeness that is on the very cusp of turning his rotten, just as his characters are determined to enjoy the last glorious days of their youth before the summer comes to an end – and the bleary cinematography also seems to position the film at the very cusp between summer and autumn as well, as the action plays out in a sustained late afternoon melancholy sensuality.
What narrative ensues, then, tends to take place by way of the playful, provisional, provocative, contagious and open-ended space of flirtation, producing a cruisey atmosphere that prevents any connection or attraction feeling stable and static. Over the first hour, in particular, Kechiche beautifully captures the way in which flirtation can shift and modulate almost imperceptibly, to the point where flirtation, or cruising, becomes a kind of free-floating libidinal entity that can change its object at a moment’s notice. As the cast of characters gradually expands and the promiscuous energy grows more diffuse and amorphous, individual encounters are quickly subsumed back into the broader sensuous matrix, like a dance that groups, disperses and regroups as the film proceeds. For large parts of this opening section, that produces an extraordinarily exuberant celebration of the Arabic body in France, and French-speaking areas, as Kechiche continually seeks out ways to visualise a landscape within which Arabic physiology is a source of unrestrained and unapologetic abandon, rather than an object of scrutiny, surveillance and anxious suspicion.
That focus on bodily haptics also means that Kechiche tends to more or less discard characterisation, with most of the main figures working best when they’re in this provisional space of flirtation in which their inner lives don’t matter so much. Indeed, the characters barely seem to exist outside of this promiscuous flux, meaning that any scene that isn’t driven by some kind of flirtatious propulsion tends to drag a bit, as do any one-on-one exchanges that aren’t contoured by a third party or by the presence of this broader sensuous field. Part of the pleasure of the collective flirtatious sequences are how eloquently each participant accepts flirtation as a kind of sustained performance, and an acknowledgment of the performative nature of identity itself – a position that might sound quite abstruse, but is infectiously enjoyable when put into action and embodied by Kechiche’s mise-en-scenes. Conversely, though, that makes it hard for the film to sustain any kind of more conventional introspective exchange between characters, at least at first, leading to a series of interminable conversations that feel utterly unedited and uncrafted.
Within that unusual ambience, character development can’t occur in a regular way, so the film gains its narrative trajectory from the way in which Amin gradually abstracts himself from this promiscuous flux, allowing it to move around him and caress him, but never quite permitting himself to participate in it in a direct or intentional manner. In effect, this constitutes his delineation as a character, as his aloofness gradually intensifies the sensuality of the film, which moves into full-blown sleaze about halfway through, as Kechiche treats us to one writhing female torso after another, in what quickly come to feel like a trite wet dream, or a leering beer advertisement. Beyond a certain point, all that’s left is the stupid, boring, promiscuous energy of drunk people, which is only mildly interesting in the first place if you’re totally plastered yourself, or at least actually physically present, with Kechiche’s clear pleasure at participating in the filming often seeming to trump his concern for the final product. That culminates with a thirty minute nightclub scene, scored to one Eurodance motif after another, and one booty shot after another, replete with what appears to be twerking some twenty years ahead of its time. Like being the only sober person in a world of inebriated douchebags, these final sequences are coldly alienating, despite their rampant sensuality, subsuming all the sun-drenched warmth of the opening sequences into the manufactured Mediterranean atmospherics of mid-90s trance anthems.
Yet that very sense of alienation takes the film in a surprising direction, one that will presumably be explored further in the next installment in the trilogy, which has reportedly already been shot. For, as the sensuous palette hyperbolises to compensate for Amin’s abstinence, his abstincence is brought into sharper focus as well, in what gradually comes to feel like a kind of pre-coming-out narrative. While he may never register attraction to men per se, his whole identity is suffused with the awareness that heterosexual desire is ramifying far too intrusively and obnoxiously to leave a space for him to articulate himself – an awareness that is surely just as common to queer self-realisation as the more sudden moments of revelatory self-knowledge that tend to suffuse big screen depictions of coming out. No doubt, Amin initially seems to identify with the camera’s ogling gaze, and yet while he never ceases to feel that women are beautiful, and lovely to look at, that aesthetic appreciation is gradually uncoupled from any genuine sense of sexual desire. Certainly, the walls of his bedroom may be adorned with female nudes, but they’re Renaissance paintings rather than Playboy models, just as his need to continuously photograph Camelia doesn’t make him feel any more comfortable about kissing her, or any woman, directly on the mouth. In one quite surreal and sustained aside, he does a photographic piece on a local goat farm, and as he waits, camera in hand, for a nanny to give birth, you can’t help but feel that this is his relationship with the female human body as well – fascinated, devoted and keen to pay tribute, but inextricably chaste in his sense of artistic detachment and distance.
What Mektoub, My Love offers, then, is a quite deft and beautiful account of the way in which queer desire often manifests, first and foremost, as an overwhelming and oppressive sense of the pervasiveness of heterosexual desire. Building an obnoxious and exploitative Europorn aesthetic only to then figure it as a canvas against which queerness has to struggle to define itself, Kechiche thus articulates an enormously thoughtful and considered response to the criticisms levelled at Blue is the Warmest Colour, and its reduction of lesbian desire to a heterosexual male fantasy. While critics may have objected to the way in which Kechiche doubles down on that fantasy in Mektoub, My Love, the originality of the film lies in his acknowledgment that he can’t escape that fantasy – he can only use it as a way of contouring the kinds of desire that it excludes and that can only be defined against it. Whether or not Amin “comes out” in the next film, or simply continues to experience queerness as this oppressive heterosexual ambience, the first film stands alone, then, in the eloquence with which it captures the most dawning and inchoate moments of queer self-recognition, before queerness itself has even been articulated as a possibility of existence.