Original Name: Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Runtime: 180 minutes
IMDB Link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6121444/
How comes a 3-hour long movie about a paper thin premise can move me this much? In fact, I consider the first two hour comparable, if not even better, than his Palme D’or Blue is the Warmest Color. That just speak to how well-crafted Abdellatif Kechiche’s filmmaking is. Make no mistake, Mektoub is his most extreme, his most self-indulgent and it will surely divide the viewers. Intended as the first part of his planned trilogy, Canto Uno details about the summer home holiday of Amin (Shain Boumedene), himself just decide to quit med for screenwriting. Canto Uno’s first quality is the setting itself. There’s a specific vibe in this universe: it’s summer 1994 in the Mediterranean beach, where something called internet is yet to arrive and where the cast would spend days for beach, bar, restaurant and nothing in between. Like with his early film Secrets of the Grain, Canto Uno is another Franco-Tunisia specific tale of an extended Tunisian family.
At its core, this movie is more fascinated with the conversations (mostly between one male and one female) than developing any meaningful development. The film is made of several extended set pieces where characters moving in and out of the picture, new characters pop in and long, sometimes improv dialogues. Yet the camera rarely loses its focus, sometimes it holds more than dozen characters in a single frame, yet it still underlines more subtle characters movements, and even, the chemistry tension in some characters of the cast. Other directors would go for a simple back-and-forth when characters engaging in conversations, but definitely not here. Kechiche lets the scenes play out as its own pace, where there would be several simultaneous exchanges happen at the same time, where the characters are constantly moving (and shaking). Because of this excessive approach, the cast has very natural chemistry with each other all around. It feels as if the actors loosen themselves to their roles.
Canto Uno is also a movie about flirtation, therefore it brings out one of the most controversial quality, the constant male gaze. As Amin and his uncle pick up new girls, the camera can’t help but leer into the girls’ bodies. That gaze is constantly presented whenever the casts are in the club or on the beach. It does serve a purpose since this story is seen through the lenses of Amin but the excessive use of leering unfortunately cheapen the show’s narrative. They might be horny, and surprisingly for the film with such dirty looks there isn’t mang sex scenes, but at the same time this film isn’t that much interested in sexual tension. It’s there, it’s hinted everywhere but the film refuses to make it a central focus. In fact, that’s another quality of Canto Uno, despite its lengthy setpieces, many of the events are purposely happened offscreen. We hear many times about that blonde Russian girl, Anastacia, for example, and from what Amin tell it could be a very interesting night to delve into, yet she, along with Ophielie’s fiance, will always be the ghost in this story. The same goes for the party night in which Tony (Amin’s uncle) disappeared, or how he dumps a girl (Charlotte) when he has enough of her.
As such, this movie’s main narrative concern, if I can call it that, is the relationship between Amin and Ophelia, with his uncle Tony and the new girl Cecile are the possible plot threads. Things are complicated between Ophelia and Tony, and it’s obvious from Amin’s eyes that he has a feeling for his childhood friend. The movie spends a considerable amount of time of them talking to each other, mostly about Ophelia’s affair, and their relationship takes a quite interesting turn itself. Whether how their relationship, and the main narrative in general, go is anyone’s guess at the moment. At this moment, their characters are like that of the movie itself, fascinating in some moments, lacking when you put all the pieces altogether.
At the same time, Its flaws are easy to detect alongside the obvious male-leering: it’s overlong, none of the relationship paid off. At worst, the story just doesn’t move, despite its 3-hour run. Part of it due to how Kechiche plays out the normal conversations in great length, but mostly because after several meet ups and partying, these people and their relationships are still at status quo. There’s no meaningful development and the last hour, for example, the film goes off the rail with Amin photographing the birth of the new cub, and the twenty-minute-but-feel-much-longer party sequences. These scenes are fascinating by themselves, but put them into the context of this film, they serve absolutely nothing in narrative. Canto Uno’s strength has always been its superb ability to craft detailed and natural (and I can even argue: purposeful) dialogues that speak to the nature of us as human, of how we interact with each other, so these silencio gaps hurt the movie the deepest. The film feels utterly incomplete, because how it’s designed as part of a trilogy, but never meaningless. It’s up to you, however, to see if the long running time and the lack of development justify its worthiness.