October 19, 2019

At Cannes, the Heartfelt and the Scathing Exist Side by Side

At Cannes, the Heartfelt and the Scathing Exist Side by Side

As I watched Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo,” I kept wondering how it would be received by the women on the main jury, including the directors Kelly Reichardt and Alice Rohrwacher. What would they make of the festival giving one of the prestigious 21 slots in the main competition to this three-and-a-half hour ode to the female rear end? In 2013, Kechiche won the Palme d’Or for “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” sharing the prize with its stars, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. It was clear then that he had a thing for women’s posteriors, a fixation that has reached its nadir in this epic of jittering, bopping butt.

The movie is divided into drifty sections and opens with 45 minutes of young women on the beach who twerk in the water; rub sunscreen on one another; yammer blandly. This is followed by a mind-numbing three hours in a dance club, including an explicit oral-sex scene in a bathroom. This interlude is mostly notable for its uncomfortable-looking gymnastics and its tireless female performer (Ophélie Bau). Wearing nothing but sneakers and a shirt, she must continually rearrange her body so she can present her vulva or rear end to the camera, a display that is familiar from hard-core pornography.

There’s nothing new about an art-house director working with pornographic imagery. But Kechiche’s fetishization of the female body here is as tedious as it is insulting, and the actual filmmaking is flat-out bad; it’s uninterestingly, unproductively ugly, boring and repetitive. It is possible to imagine that the programmers felt compelled to include “Mektoub” because of Kechiche’s Palme; he’s their guy, in a way, and this event helped establish his international reputation. Then again, one thing that Cannes reminds you is that quality is rarely the only reason movies play in festivals; slots need to be filled, quotas met, back-room deals made.

Whatever the reason that “Mektoub” was programmed and no matter how many scathing reviews it receives, the result is that the festival has reaffirmed Kechiche’s stature as a Cannes-anointed auteur. It’s dispiriting. Cannes has been rightly and regularly criticized for its lack of gender diversity, though recently it has made good-faith efforts to rectify its reputation for venerating male auteurs while making a spectacle out of young, beautiful female stars. Last year its programmers signed a “pledge for parity and inclusion” with the activist group 5050×2020, a French group that formed after the Weinstein accusations.

The festival is clearly trying to change — partly because of outside feminist pressure — but it needs to do better. One easy symbolic fix would be a complete reconsideration of the red carpet, which is at once the festival’s global brand and a continuing, very contentious emblem of gender inequality. The festival’s official policy is that women are not required to wear high heels, but this year Claudia Eller, the editor in chief of Variety, had a showdown with guards over her (nice!) flats. That there’s a continuum between the kind of religiously enforced clothing restrictions in “Papicha” and the dress code on the red carpet is unfortunately obvious.

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