Cannes 2019, Day 11: Kechiche doubles down with three-hour twerk fest
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French provocateur Abdelatif Kechiche is in unapologetic mood with his leery “Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo”, an exhausting and sexually-explicit nightclub extravaganza, while Marco Bellocchio unlocks the secrets of the Sicilian mafia in "The Traitor".
We thought the Cannes Film Festival had lost its faculty to provoke, shock and stir outrage. Albert Serra tried his best with two hours of lurid, moon-lit libertinage in 18th century costumes. Diao Yinan gave us decapitation, impalement, murder-by-umbrella and the creepiest oral sex. Both were brilliant – but prompted laughter from the jaded audience. Short of an ill-thought “I understand Hitler” quip, it seemed filmmakers had run out of options to trigger a scandal. Nothing could possibly match the uproar that followed the unsimulated fellatio in Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” (2003) or the gorging-to-death in Marco Ferreri’s “La Grande Bouffe” (1973), which saw people spit on the director as he exited the screening and jury president Ingrid Bergman reportedly vomit.
And then along came Abdelatif Kechiche with an unfailingly graphic oral sex scene to outlast all others (though this time the woman is on top), and a thumping, throbbing, three-hour-long dancefloor sequence that places his film firmly in the realm of endurance cinema. “Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo” is part two of an epically long, sun-blessed summer pastoral set in the southern coastal town of Sète – except this time Kechiche shuts out the sun and locks us up in a nightclub for three hours. Another heady, exhausting piece of ensemble acting, this film feels like one big finger up at Kechiche’s critics, challenging even his most ardent supporters. It takes the most grueling elements from his sublime “Canto Uno” – the club sequence and endless butt-shots – and expands them into an utterly plotless nightlong study of hedonistic release on the French Riviera.
We get a glimpse of the fading sun in the film’s glorious opening shot, a close-up of a young girl’s radiant face as seen through the camera lens of the film’s nominal protagonist Amin (Shaïn Boumédine). But the camera gently drops down until it dwells on her bare bottom – the first of many buttocks subjected to unprecedented scrutiny throughout the film. We then shift to the beach to pick up the same scantily clad Franco-Tunisian characters from “Canto Uno”, including Ophélie (Ophélie Bau), whose backside is once again the real protagonist. There’s a newcomer from Paris, 18-year-old student Marie (Marie Bernard), who is chatted up by Amin’s cousin Tony (Salim Kechiouche). Amid much flirtatious and playful chatter there’s some casual talk of Plato’s allegory of the cave (Marie is into philosophy and Greek myths), and this is perhaps a warning to viewers that they’re about to be chained in the cave for a full three hours.
The rest of the film is a seemingly never-ending butt shot interspersed with some tedious dialogue (the only extended scene without on-screen buttocks sees two girls discuss whether they prefer their bums fat or flat, muscular or flabby – implying that the film’s constant waist-level looking is not only about male gaze). Kechiche captures the exhilarating and liberating chemistry between the women on the dancefloor, as well as the group’s rapidly shifting sexual dynamics. But for the viewers, it feels like being trapped for hours in a discotheque where you can’t move, drink or talk – bludgeoned into submission. This is an entirely hermetic world, an aesthetics of extenuation that will either immerse you in a trance or bore you to death. And when the ear-splitting techno beat finally ends, there is that peculiar sound a noise makes when it abruptly ceases, leaving us dumbstruck and relieved.
Was this some kind of artistic suicide by the Palme d’Or-winning director of “Blue Is the Warmest Colour”? It’s surely a commercial one. Kechiche has alienated much of the film industry and famously had to sell his Palme d’Or to finance his work. Does he care? Probably not. “My aim is to celebrate life, live, desire, music and the human body in a cinematic experience that is as free as possible,” the filmmaker said at a distinctly unpleasant press conference on Friday. He had no patience for critics and no desire to let his actors voice their feelings about the shooting. He expressed only one regret: taking 34 minutes off his original 4-hour cut.
There was another lengthy film earlier on in the Palme d’Or competition, and it could have gone on for much longer so fascinating is the subject. Marco Bellocchio’s first Cannes entry in a decade, “The Traitor” tells the story of Tommaso Buscetta, the first big-time Mafioso to break the code of silence. It stars Pierfrancesco Favino as the Sicilian mobster turned informant, whose revelations formed the cornerstone of the so-called “maxi processo”, the 1986 trial of hundreds of members of Cosa Nostra, then the world’s most powerful crime syndicate.
The unprecedented and chaotic trial – which took place in a purpose-built steel and concrete bunker, complete with underground tunnels and bomb-proof windows – accounts for many of the film’s most gripping scenes. This is no Hollywood take on wiseguys. Bellocchio sees the mafiosi for what they are, grotesque and spiteful murderers who merely profess to live by a code of honour. They are all there, prowling like caged tigers behind bars, except for the biggest mobster of the lot: Salvatore Riina, the butcher of Corleone, whose vengeance will take out Italy’s finest judges.
“I don’t know whether I am more scared of the mafia or the state,” judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), the trial’s instigator, tells Buscetta in one of several explicit references to the mafia’s protectors in Rome. Falcone was duly assassinated on May 23, 1992 when Riina’s men blew up a motorway bridge, a shocking event Bellocchio films from the interior of Falcone’s car as it flips up into the air and comes crashing back down (Cannes also marked the grisly murder by holding the film’s premiere on its anniversary).
Favino gives a powerful performance as the socialite, womanizing Buscetta, from his first kill as a young Mafioso to his paranoid final years carrying a semi-automatic rifle while on a witness-protection scheme in the US. “The Traitor” shows that Buscetta was no natural snitch, only turning on his fellow mobsters once they murdered most of his family. He’s the key to unlock the secrets of Cosa Nostra, and one of the few surviving witnesses of the bloody internal war that saw Riina’s Corleonese faction wipe out the old mafia of Palermo. But in a somber coda, Bellocchio ends his film with the one secret Buscetta was unable to uncover: the extent to which some figures in the Italian state colluded with the mafia, even as judges, police officers and journalists were being bumped off.