The story behind Mektoub, My Love may be more interesting than anything which appears on screen

Abdellatif Kechiche’s follow-up to Blue is the Warmest Colour is proving to be just as controversial as his last film.

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It was all smiles and celebration when Blue is the Warmest Colour won the Palme d’Or six years ago. A jury presided over by Steven Spielberg and featuring among its members Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee and Lynne Ramsay gave the prize to the director Abdellatif Kechiche while also making history by awarding an honorary Palme to each of the lead actors, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux.

Spielberg called the picture “a great love story that made all of us feel privileged to be a fly on the wall, to see this story of deep love and deep heartbreak evolve from the beginning. The director didn’t put any constraints on the narrative. He let the scenes play in real life, and we were absolutely spellbound.”

Coming as it did at a time of protests in France against marriage equality, the prize-giving for this sexually explicit gay drama was interpreted also as a riposte to bigotry – though Spielberg insisted that nothing entered into the jury’s consideration other than the movie on the screen. “Politics were never in the room with us,” he said.

And then everything started to fall apart. Julie Maroh, who wrote the graphic novel on which the film was based, complained that the sex in the film amounted to “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn”. Accusations of cruelty and exploitation were levelled at Kechiche by his actors, who spoke in interviews of the ten gruelling days he took to shoot the detailed sex scene. Reports centred on Seydoux’s admission that it was “humiliating” and that she felt “like a prostitute”; they neglected to put quite the same emphasis on her remark that, “The result is what is important. I think it’s a beautiful result and beautiful film, I want to do beautiful films and it’s not about me.”

A public slanging match ensued during which both actors promised they would never work with Kechiche again; his response was somewhat lacking in diplomacy: “How indecent to talk about pain when doing one of the best jobs in the world!” he fumed. “How, when you are adored, when you go up on red carpet, when we receive awards, how we can speak of suffering?” 

He announced the film would be better off never being released. “I still feel the film didn’t come out in a healthy way. It’s a bit like a marriage – you have to have a party, flowers, a carpet, light, smiles – and there’s been too much controversy, too many unhealthy things that leave a bitter taste.” And then he changed his mind. There was a seeming rapprochement before Kechiche called Seydoux “an arrogant, spoiled child”.

Thankfully none of this quite obscured the fact that a remarkable film had been made. But it was still the sharpest and speediest fall from grace for any filmmaker in the aftermath of winning a Palme d’Or. Even that practised troublemaker Lars von Trier didn’t experience his until more than a decade after nabbing the prize.

Perhaps the Blue brouhaha accounts for the distinct lack of excitement and coverage for Kechiche’s new film, Mektoub, My Love. Or, to give the film its full title, guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who finds its three-hour running time indulgent and excessive: Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno. Based on the 2012 novel La Blessure, la Vraie by François Bégaudeau (co-writer and star of another Palme d’Or-winner, Laurent Cantet’s The Class), the picture is set in the southern beach town of Sète over the course of a long, sweaty, hedonistic summer. Amin (played by Shaïn Boumedine) and his friends chat, party, swim, sunbathe and muse on one another’s love lives. Like the characters, Mektoub, My Love is itself apparently aimless, often irritating, prone to treading water – indeed, it could be accused of being one long longueur

But I found plenty to admire in it. Using the noncommittal Amin as the prism through which to observe this set of mostly beautiful and entitled teens and twenty-somethings lends the material an emotional remoteness that contrasts interestingly with its physical immediacy. Kechiche’s camera is an unnamed participant in the excitable social gatherings, burrowing into the most intimate conversations with an effortless subjectivity that testifies to the many months the director spends getting to know his actors, persuading them to be comfortable with him.

And yet having Amin as our guide complicates these feelings of immersion. The longer we spend with him, the farther away we are likely to find ourselves from the precise nature of his desires and motivations. It’s almost reassuring when, two hours into the movie, he tries to pressure a female friend into posing naked for his photography project – it may be sleazy and calculating but at least it gives us a sense of what he wants.

It would be wrong to say Amin is on the outside, looking in. It’s altogether stranger than that. He’s on the inside looking in: part of the lustful, celebratory atmosphere and yet always distinct and separate from it. The opening sequence, in which he spies on his cousin Tony (Salim Kechiouche) having vigorous sex with Ophélie (Ophélie Bau), should tip us off. He’s a watcher. And in making us see this world through his eyes, Kechiche makes watchers of us all, challenging not only our right to look but our reasons for wanting to. 

There may be another reason why Mektoub, My Love has been given the cold shoulder. Kechiche has recently faced accusations of sexual assault from an unnamed female actor – claims he denies, but which may still make some audiences understandably queasy about watching a film so reliant on a disinhibited approach to its characters’ sex lives.

In fact, the story behind the movie may ultimately be more interesting than anything which appears on screen. After all, Kechiche pledged to auction off his Palme d’Or to finish Mektoub, My Love when he ran out of funds during post-production. The matter of whether he found any takers does not appear to have been recorded. But the tale of a director who divests himself of cinema’s greatest accolade, received for a film that whipped up no end of trouble, in order to complete a film which is then greeted with near-unanimous antipathy – isn’t there a movie in that?

Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno is on release now.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.