Abdellatif Kechiche was already having a bad day when he walked into his press conference at Cannes. The French-Tunisian director’s latest film, Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo — a pestilential three-and-a-half-hour mess that spends the majority of its running time on pervy close-ups of its young female cast’s gyrating derrières before delivering an extended, 13-minute-long scene of explicit, un-simulated cunnilingus — had premiered the previous night to walkouts and derisive howls, as well as a general sense that we’d all just seen one of the worst films to have ever screened at Cannes. (And remember, this is a festival that showed Gotti last year.) At the end of his film’s gala screening, Kechiche, whose Blue Is the Warmest Color won the Palme d’Or here in 2013, even issued a brief apology to what was left of his audience: “I apologize for having detained you without warning you … I am going away.” By that point, some of his cast had already reportedly left.
The press conference on Friday didn’t make things any better. “It so happens that my education taught me to apologize for taking up a lot of people’s time,” Kechiche replied to a question from a reporter about his apology, adding that he was also “brought up to apologize for drawing attention to myself.” When the same reporter asked Kechiche about accusations of sexual assault brought against him last year by an actress and the ensuing police investigation, the director somewhat bafflingly responded, “I’m not aware of an investigation. My mind is at rest in terms of the law.” He also deemed the question “stupid and misplaced.”
Kechiche refused to answer another question (addressed both to him and his cast) about his on-set methods with actors, which seemed particularly distressing given that his Warmest Color stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux have feuded with the director publicly about his treatment of them during that film’s grueling shoot. “I’d rather they kept quiet,” the director said of his actors, which seemed a bit awkward given that his most recent cast was sitting right there next to him.
The director claimed that the walkouts didn’t bother him. “I tried to do something different, and not everyone is open to that,” he said. “Not everyone is open to the way I look at others.” He also insisted that the film is meant to be a celebration of “life, love, desire, music, the body. I wanted to try a cinematographic experience that would be free as possible.”
All that is a little ironic, given that one gets no sense of freedom from this oppressive, tedious film. The vast majority of Intermezzo — which is actually a sequel to 2017’s Mektoub, My Love: Canto I that featured the same cast but was only three hours — is set over the course of one night in a small nightclub where the young cast twerks, twists, and fondles for immense stretches of time. But they’re so ruthlessly framed — their bodies fragmented, the shots often static, usually focused on close-ups of butts — that one gets no sense of real movement or liberation.
Similarly, while the director insists that the movie’s bizarre rhythms, its immense length, and the absurd amount of time he spends focused on his characters dancing are meant to immerse us and put us into some sort of trance state, they actually achieve the exact opposite. We’re pulled out of the film. Kechiche has said he was inspired by Cubism, but that doesn’t exactly seem reconcilable with this notion that he wants us to lose ourselves in the movie. Or its impoverished aesthetics: Beyond being tiresome, Intermezzo is just plain ugly, with seemingly little care given to the image — odd, perhaps, given that the film is so clearly and confrontationally about its own director’s gaze. One critic friend described the picture as “a self-immolation,” and I think he might have been too kind.
And while the cunnilingus scene outraged many in the audience, it at least shows something happening. Indeed, that scene, set in a cramped bathroom, has the sense of unposed physicality and intensity that Kechiche claims he wanted the rest of his film to have. So maybe that’s why it feels so out of place; it perhaps belongs in a different, better film.
“I wanted to film the magic of the body, the metaphysical dimension of the body,” Kechiche says. But he hasn’t really done any such thing. His actors — who in their occasional scenes of dialogue do have a naturalistic ease about them, suggesting that they’re quite talented — mostly seem exhausted. What they’re doing onscreen doesn’t feel like freedom, or youth, or pleasure; it looks like work. Ironically, at his press conference, the director lamented that very few critics have noticed the great performances in the film. But who’s really to blame for that? He’s the one who made a three-and-a-half-hour movie with these actors and gave them almost nothing to do except shake their asses.