Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno

It’s true (as the Sight & Sound review points out) that the protagonist of this three-hour sun-dappled epic is a bit vacant. Amin is our stand-in and camera lens – an observer-participant who spends most of his time observing. The youthful romantic dalliances that drift around him on a holiday in the French Mediterranean are seductive and bewildering, but he never gets involved, even though he has ample opportunity to. When he voyeuristically spies on the sex scene at the start of the film, we assume that a love triangle is being set up between him, his cousin Tony and his childhood friend Ophélie. But although he flirts a little bit, he never actually gets with the girl. Instead it’s all photography to him. He’ll take photos of Ophélie naked as a way to develop as an artist, but he won’t sleep with her. The friend zone is maintained strictly throughout.

That's just the most obvious example of the director Abdellatif Kechiche sending up our expectations. When Tony chats up another girl on the beach called Charlotte we think that Amin, who's with Tony but is less confident picking up random ladies, will end up with Charlotte's similarly less confident Céline. But Céline turns out to be a total down-for-whatever-and-whoever party girl. Likewise that initial sex scene, which as in Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Colour is designed to establish in no uncertain terms the intense physical connection between the couple. The bond between Tony and Ophélie is subsequently pulled apart bit by bit by the rest of the film's portrayal of Tony’s irresponsible, philandering actions.

The biggest re-evaluation comes with Charlotte's character, who we dismiss as a fool and a drama queen for being hoodwinked by Tony, who is obviously an untrustworthy rake. But like Amin, she turns out to be an outsider, and they unexpectedly end up hanging out at the end of the film. Even though there is a strong connection between Amin and Ophélie, he decides not to act on it when he realises that she’s a bit too much of a party girl like Céline. Instead it's Charlotte, now estranged from the rest of the characters, that he decides to spend time with. Perhaps her wish for a more serious relationship with Tony is what appeals to Amin, who is also after something more serious than a summer fling.

I am being more patronising than Amin, perhaps. But the film constantly reinforces his sense of superiority. Perhaps it would have been a stronger piece of work without an outsider at the centre. Amin is very obviously a stand-in for the director – he writes screenplays, is an amateur photographer, and wants to date Russian literature students. He’s a social class climber, who loves his community and his roots, but ultimately ran away to Paris to be a student and still wants to go and achieve greater things than work at a family restaurant, drink at the beach and clumsily try to seduce pretty girls on holiday.

There is something very weird about Kechiche, who not only alienated the stars of his previous hit Blue Is The Warmest Colour for the way he approached the filming of a lengthy sex scene, but is also now under investigation for sexual assault, to make a film about what flirting used to be like in the good old days of 1994. Mektoub, My Love is a mostly sunny paean to a time when this kind of brazen lasciviousness was totally one hundred per cent not a problem. None of the women mind being ogled by the characters and Kechiche's camera. They find it charming. The ageing pissed lotharios who feel them up are just good for a laugh. But at what point does flirting end and harassment begin?

It's all OK in the world of the film – the women like it, accept it, or save each other from unwanted attention. But the risk of misreading what's going on in such situations is severe, and I for one am not too sorry that this kind of behaviour is no longer acceptable (if it ever really was). Kechiche seems to be hankering for a time before the complications exposed by #MeToo surfaced, and people could run the risk of being more playful with each other. It feels suspicious – like he's trying to make excuses for himself.

But there's something masterful about his technique. Some have found this film frustratingly long and aimless, and ultimately tedious. I was hooked pretty much throughout – the only dull stretch comes when Amin spends an evening trying to photograph lambs being born. But even that is to the film's purpose, in that it demonstrates how Amin finds this solitary activity more fulfilling than having fun with his beautiful friends at a nightclub. And it's those beautiful friends that are the source of intrigue and interest in the film. Incrementally figuring out their shifting relationships and allegiances makes for supremely watchable cinema.


"Men are strange in the city. I do not understand loving and hating, only being and knowing. But now I must learn how to love this child." – Sybel in Patricia A. McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld


The Silence of the Lambs

Maybe one of the reasons why Lecter is so scary is that unlike Clarice or Buffalo Bill there is no one smart enough to analyse him. He always remains enigmatically one step ahead. He sees through Clarice extremely quickly, not just the tedious, sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars but the void in her life left by the death of her father – and so her need for replacement father-figures. Her boss Jack Crawford is one such candidate. Lecter realises that he could easily become another.

But the notion that Clarise finds men and sex tedious is perceptive as well. Throughout the film she is admired for her beauty in pretty crass ways, most shockingly when a neighbouring psycho flings cum in her face. Lecter's hint that the path of the serial killer begins with the urge to 'covet' is significant here. A miasma of stale male covetousness pervades the film. It just becomes concentrated and curdled in the case of Buffalo Bill (though it's a pity that the character's queerness is pathologised as well). In some sense, all the men in the film have something creepy about them – the serial killers are just at the extreme end of the spectrum.

Is Lecter devoid of this? Why does he kill and eat people? He seems to covet not just women but psychological insight. He savours Clarice's childhood trauma like he's breathing in a fine wine. Maybe he started out coveting the traumas of his patients and kept moving on to stronger fare. It's a more satisfactory interpretation that the revenge narrative provided in the sequels.

One of the joys of the movie is that the scenes between Lecter and Clarice mix up a police interrogation (where Clarice has the upper hand) with the therapy session (where Lecter rules supreme). It's an explicitly set out quid pro quo, with the two characters alternating roles and vying for supremacy. Lecter's pleasure at the playing of the game may be why he spares Clarice at the end of the film – he doesn't quite want it to end.

Another joy is the great use made of a drifting camera that keeps picking out incidental details in the frame that add texture to the story. A good (and funny) early example is a sign at the FBI training camp that reads 'HURT-AGONY-PAIN: LOVE IT' – which almost becomes an ironic alternative strapline for the movie. The technique forces you into the position of an FBI agent sifting through the shots for clues. But the camera isn't just an objective presence – it whirls around into flashbacks when you least expect it, or switches point of view to maximise tension, as in the final parallel montage. It's very well put together, and it can still creep you out 27 years after it was made.