One party animal on screen tells another that “It’s the end of everything,” and I finally lose count of the number of films at this festival that have vocalized the fatalism of our time, the nagging feeling that we all may be hurtling toward a point of destructive conclusion. Uttered during one of the last screenings on my last day at Cannes, his words also remind me, in a smaller sense, that another surreal, jam-packed year on the Croisette is drawing to a close. Am I melancholy? I’d feel more so in the moment if I weren’t hoping for a third meaning in the line that sadly doesn’t arrive, a promise of imminent reprieve from the film containing it, instead of something closer to a midway marker in what I can now safely identify as the endurance test of this rapidly elapsing fortnight.
The programmers, in their infinite sadism, saved the worst (and the longest) for close to last. Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo (Grade: D) is a baffling passion project whose cruelly protracted runtime is eclipsed only by the monumentally tedious way it fills it. For an interminable three and a half hours, the Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche numbed our asses (and minds) with nothing but ass: a parade of gyrating, jiggling flesh, belonging to a group of hot but terminally boring French twentysomethings on summer vacation, burning a seemingly endless evening at a nondescript nightclub where the film—after a brief and comparatively enthralling prologue on the beach—strands us for its shapeless entirety. That this colossal bore, the walk-out disaster of Cannes (à la Sea Of Trees or The Last Face, only twice the fucking length of either), earned a spot in the competition lineup is the only evidence you could ever need that once you’ve gotten into this club, you’re in.
The last time Kechiche was at Cannes, he won the Palme D’Or, for his nearly as long but almost unfathomably better Blue Is The Warmest Color, which actually put its three hours to engaging use. This time, it’s as though Kechiche has taken the basics of that coming-of-age epic—talk, sex, young people exploring themselves and each other—and stripped it of all drama, structure, and character. As its subtitle suggests, Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo is technically a sequel, the second installment of a trilogy Kechiche began a few years ago with an adaptation of a novel by François Bégaudeau, who wrote and starred as himself in another Cannes winner, The Class. Kechiche actually sold his own Palme to pay for the completion of the original Mektoub (did he sweeten the deal by throwing in his craft and good sense, too?), which producers pulled financing on during post-production, in what I can only see as proof that sometimes the system does work. The film premiered at Venice two years ago to withering reviews, and never opened in the States, which left some of the American press here in Cannes wondering if we’d be able to follow the plot of the new one.
To which I now ask: What plot? Mektoub spares a few minutes here and there for the woes of Ophélie (Ophélie Bau), who’s engaged to be married in three weeks but pregnant with the child of her lover. Otherwise, we’re talking wall-to-wall banal conversation and twerking; it’s no exaggeration to say that roughly half of the movie is made up of shots of young women congregating around a stripper pole and methodically, joylessly setting their every muscle to vibrate. Kechiche also includes one sequence of explicit, un-simulated oral sex in a bathroom, and it doesn’t take a puerile interest to recognize it as the movie’s highlight, if only because it breaks up the sheer monotony and emotionless torpor of the dance floor “scenes.” At the same time, as someone who defended the sex in Blue Is The Warmest Color as justified and even beautiful in the context of its first-love narrative, I’m starting to get a serious Larry Clark vibe from Kechiche, who’s now built three whole movies around ogling. (The movie’s nonstop bared skin sits uneasily with the reports of unprofessional conduct on the set of Blue, as well as recent sexual assault allegations.)
As a glutton for punishment (cinematic and, well, otherwise), I almost have to admire the uncompromising uneventfulness of this movie, which is nothing if not daringly committed to its dubious goal of giving Girls Gone Wild the grueling slow-cinema treatment. I can even make some kind of intellectual case for Mektoub as an immersive, naturalistic, basically real-time plunge into the hedonism of early-20s life: a drunken night out rendered in all its horny anti-splendor. In practice, however, the film is a slog of epic proportions, its trancelike repetitiveness threatening to destroy this critic’s fragile grasp on time itself, ushering me into a new plane of star-child boredom. All the same, I’m perversely glad I forced myself to sit through it. Cannes wouldn’t be Cannes without an outsize folly, and given the venomous reception to Mektoub already, this may well have been my only chance to experience—nay, endure—the film on the big screen. Count me out of the next one, though, assuming Kechiche has any other awards lying around he can pawn to cover the budget.
If Mektoub suffers from, to put it generously, a lack of incident, one of the films it’s competing against (which is also putting it generously) has basically the opposite problem. The Traitor (Grade: C+), from Italian director Marco Bellocchio, is nothing but incident. It’s a decades-spanning biodrama about Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), the Mafia boss who betrayed his Sicilian syndicate by turning informant in the 1980s, eventually entering Witness Protection in the United States and opening the door for future defections in the ranks of Italian organized crime. Bellocchio (The Conviction, fellow Cannes selection Vincere) operates in his usual strikingly operatic mode, and he has plenty of exciting material to dramatize here, from the usual gangland slayings that set the plot into motion to the absurdities and confrontations of the Maxi Trial, in which prosecutors indicted nearly 500 members of the organization. (It’s still considered the largest trial in world history.) But with a true-crime canvas so large, Bellocchio arguably required a more Mektoub-sized running time; this one runs a comparatively brief two and a half hours, and it ends up privileging an endless deluge of dates, names, and events over providing its title character much of an arc. There’s just no real perspective on Buscetta, which separates this brisk but uninvolving history lesson from the truly great mob movies. I was a little bored with it, too, honestly.
Later today: A brief note on a competition title that’s still under embargo. And I’ll close my coverage by trying and undoubtedly failing to guess what will win the major prizes at Cannes this year, with thoughts on my favorites of the festival, too.