A simple but somehow atypical shot opens Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film: a serene closeup of a young woman’s face, as seen through the camera lens of Amir, a budding photographer still finding his perspective. Her expression is ambiguously tranquil, her long hair lightly rustled by a humid breeze, all softly lit by a sinking afternoon sun. It’s exquisite, the shot as much as the face, and anyone who has seen Kechiche’s last film will wonder how long the director can hold it there. But then there’s movement, and the camera gently drops and twists to close in on a different area, lower, a little lower, and yep, there it is — her toned, unblemished derrière. Welcome to the world of “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo,” where, with apologies to Samuel Beckett, form is content and content is form: the female form, that is, and its lower half in particular.
This opening gambit will prompt either a smile, smirk or sigh of recognition from viewers already acquainted with Kechiche’s bottom-heavy “Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno,” a languid coming-of-ager to which “Intermezzo” is a direct sequel. Over the course of three hours, that narratively sparse film detailed a summer of sensual discovery for a group of young, beautiful Franco-Tunisians, via the tactile pleasures common to much of the director’s work: food, dance and flesh, the latter most luxuriantly ogled of all. In its somewhat obsessive cramming of Junoesque female thighs and buttocks into every frame that could conceivably house them, “Canto Uno” felt like a defiant riposte to detractors of Kechiche’s ravishing 2013 Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color,” which weathered much criticism for the purported male gaze dominating its sexually explicit tale of lesbian first love.
Kechiche, the film insisted, wouldn’t just look at his characters however he very well pleased; he’d make us look with him. The point, however dubious, was blatantly made. Few would have said it required a further three-and-a-half hours of doubling-down for emphasis, which is what the vacuous, almost spitefully monotonous “Intermezzo” turns out to be. A dismaying creative dead end from an abundantly gifted filmmaker, the new film escalates its predecessor’s cheeky protest to a form of acute auteur trolling.
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With Kechiche’s name still mired in unresolved sexual assault allegations, a Cannes competition berth may not be enough to encourage many distributors to take the bait — not least in the U.S., where “Canto Uno” (for all its longueurs, the richer and more generous film) has yet to find a home two years after its Venice 2017 debut. That said, intermezzo is a telling word: Notwithstanding its swollen runtime, it’s a less consequential connecting movement between “Canto Uno” and whatever keisterfest Kechiche has planned next for the Mektoub Cinematic Universe.
All but plotless at 206 minutes in length, with the first film’s character development deliberately stalled for an overnight study of hedonistic release in a coastal nightclub, “Intermezzo” is a grinding exercise in low-level cinematic voyeurism that plays a little like Gaspar Noé with all his hallucinogenics confiscated and replaced with Bacardi Breezers. Who’s doing the watching? Aside from Kechiche, no one in particular. Amin (Shaïn Boumédine), the awkward, unworldly protagonist of “Canto Uno,” is a translucent presence here, largely absent from the film’s first half; his friend Ophélie (Ophélie Bau) is nominally at the center of proceedings instead, with the film’s only story development of any note.
But she’s also there primarily to be watched, from a leering low angle when freely dancing in denim hotpants, or from a distinctly NC-17 high one when receiving cunnilingus from a man (at some length, of course) in the club bathroom. This scene feels theoretically calculated to even the scales of sexual representation in Kechiche’s work, though only the woman winds up exposed. Likewise, he teases us with two women’s raucous conversation of what they look for and prize in a man’s butt — see, women objectify men too! — but as they identify and admire prime specimens on the dancefloor, the camera pointedly does not follow their gaze.
A not-unpromising half-hour beachside preamble lays out the few human stakes and dynamics to speak of: It’s September in the southern French coastal town of Sète, and the affectionately knotted ensemble of friends and relations from the first film are slowly looking ahead to post-summer life. Earthy farm worker Ophélie is two months away from marrying an unseen fiancé, but pregnant with the child of her sometime lover Tony (Salim Kechiouche). She’s considering an abortion in Paris, for which she needs the help of Amin, set to return to the capital to pursue a screenwriting career. Also eventually Paris-bound is holidaying 18-year-old student Marie (Marie Bernard), chatted up by Tony on the beach and earmarked as a potential conquest for Amin.
That’s the extent of the drama, and if viewers expect the film’s ensuing three hours to advance it, Kechiche has a perverse surprise for them. Night falls, our sunbaked youths hit the dancefloor, and that’s where we stay for the remainder of the film, ducking, darting and circling their dancing, drinking, chattering bodies as a low-rent DJ controls the mood with clomping Eurodance of narrowly varying beats per minute.
Up onto the central platform we go, where rotating permutations of the female friend group get in booty-shaking formation for Marco Graziaplena and Jérémie Attar’s closely appreciative camera; down we swing into the tipsy, sticky-floored melee, where the others idly gossip and passive-aggressively flirt; back up to the platform for a new round of vigorous group pole-dancing, and so on and so forth, ad nauseum. It’s a blaring endurance test, and designed as such: Eventually, the taunting irony sets in of Kechiche starting this ordeal with the tetchy disco swirl of Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand’s “Enough is Enough.”
It’s also a supersized expansion of “Canto Uno’s” already testing finale, which immersed viewers for over 20 minutes in much the same nightclub activity. Having spent a more conventionally structured, time-spanning narrative exploring the ties binding its revelers, however, there was some communal kick to had from watching them collectively lose themselves to dance, even with an over-prying camera as our guide. “Intermezzo,” meanwhile, regards its characters’ inner lives with cursory interest as it leans in to peer at their outer assets. Even Bau, a smart, salty revelation in the first film, gets precious little to play here beyond exhaustive physical commitment: She’s little more than a case study in the director’s stubborn defense of his own gaze.
That is what it is, often artfully so: Kechiche’s eye in “Intermezzo,” whether delicately attuned to fifty shades of sunburn or alive to the club’s light show of alcopop neons, is as keen as it is in his very best films. But to what end all this uninhibited looking when there’s so little of substance here to truly observe? There’s no real life in this bloated, petty provocation, much less any true joy amid all the partying: It’s all twerk and no play.