Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Essays, Film Reviews

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Moveable Feast

Before 2000, Abdellatif Kechiche was an actor, presumably finding pleasure and profit in performance. When he came to make movies, the French-Tunisian gravitated to raw, often nonprofessional performers, faces and bodies fresh to the pressure and invasiveness of the camera eye. Reviewing Poetical Refugee (originally La Faute à Voltaire), Kechiche’s first film, critic A.O. Scott remarked the new director’s “fine and unusual instinct for ordinary beauty.” That instinct has persisted in all of his subsequent work. And from the start, the former thespian celebrated the saving power of creative presentation of self in theater, dance … even by means of splendid cuisine! For this immigrant artist, body-based connections often generate a sense of home and metaphysical sustenance for his refugees, literal and/or existential.

Abdellatif Kechiche

Games of Love and Chance

Games of Love and Chance (2003) features a tribe of teens who live and thrive in dreary housing projects outside Paris. Typically, Kechiche concentrates on memorable faces and feelings, human landscapes of passion and individuality so richly diverse they totally background the unprepossessing environment.

At one point, some kids meet in a sort of accidental amphitheater, stone steps curving halfway around a grassy flat in a cheerless little park. They’ve gathered to rehearse an 18th-century Marivaux play, Le Jeu de l’amour et du hazard, a comedy of manners about the impossibility of escaping one’s socioeconomic destiny—a topic of special interest in Kechiche’s immigrant tales. Blond, lissome Lydia, a budding diva, is late, and Frida, a dark, frizz-maned Arab beauty, is seriously angry. Pitch-and-catch rants eventuate, ripe with down-and-dirty slang suggesting the modern-day equivalent of the playwright’s famously embroidered language. The others—especially melancholy Krimo, smitten with the lovely Lydia—play rapt audience to the two “stars” acting out a two-hander as stylized as any Marivaux scene.

And then, with scarcely a pause, Lydia elides into her dramatic role, fluttering a fancy fan, flirting archly with her Harlequin. This magical segue, from North African adolescent volatility to sophisticated French sex-and-social satire, is both startling and seamless, signaling an almost enchanted continuity.

By means of theatrical play, the sheer fun of acting out, these beautiful children—not of Marx and Coca-Cola, but of global diaspora—claim existential home ground.

The Secret of the Grain

About one-third of the way through The Secret of the Grain (2007), an extended family of French-Tunisians gathers for a big Sunday dinner. The main course is delicious fish couscous, lovingly prepared by the matriarch of the clan. (The movie’s overseas release title was Couscous.) Kechiche’s handheld camera darts about the table, catching each distinctive face in closeup, as the guests eat and gab with equal gusto. It’s as though you’re seated at the table, pigging out on the rhythms of tribal communication.

‘Secret of the Grain’

Thanks to that up-close-and-personal style—and the “real-time” duration of the scene—the viewer succumbs to the pleasure of breaking bread with this close-knit family, taking joy in how these no-longer “foreign” folk look and speak and connect with one another.

The unemployed patriarch of that family dreams of opening a restaurant in a derelict ship, to introduce the French to distinctive Tunisian fare. When literally everything goes wrong on the inaugural night, it’s the ripe body of a beautiful woman that saves the day, when a daughter of the clan rises to undulate her generous belly in exotic dance. That performance simultaneously measures and closes the distance between her and a restive audience of hungry, one-time colonizers.

Running through these tales about displaced persons is an undercurrent of melancholy, a sense of something lost (the old homeland?) even as new identity is achieved. Isolated souls unable to project their inner thoughts and needs fall by the wayside, while actress, dancer, and feast-maker find themselves, through earthy presentation. Contrary to convention and stereotype, Kechiche’s Arab heroines throw off metaphorical burqas to act out with intoxicating purpose, energy and style.

For Kechiche, character trumps plot every time. If you suffer from cinematic ADD, you’ll have trouble sitting still for this director’s slow, intense exposure of complex humanity, as he encourages us to see ourselves in people we might otherwise write off as irremediably Other. That investment in prolonging his/our gaze in what seems like real time has garnered critical admiration—and more recently, accusations of an “exploitative” directorial eye.

Black Venus

The exploitative eye—that famously prejudiced gaze attributed to male artists who frame les belles noiseuses—is front and center in Black Venus (2010). This painful film (based on actual events) forces us to suffer through the unspeakable degradation of an African woman’s flesh and soul. By documenting the visual pillage—in excruciating detail and at lacerating length—of Saartjes Baartman, Kechiche stands accused by some critics of participating, even taking perverse pleasure, in the outrage.

Brought to England around the turn of the 19th century, Sarah (Saartjes) Baartman was a major box-office draw for several impresarios who turned her huge buttocks (steatopygia) and pendulous genitalia (“Hottentot apron”) into lucrative spectacle for groundlings and aristocrats.

Our first sight of Sarah, cowering in the corner of a cage, frames what appears to be an obese, subhuman creature, entirely Other. Uncaged, the “beast” growls and paws at the audience, but is soon prodded into primitive dance. Clad in skintight red longjohns and divers exotic trinkets, the grotesque female crouches to better display that gigantic rear-end, bouncing and rolling the fat directly in the fascinated white faces of her audience … which must include us. Unlike the annealing belly dance in Secret of the Grain, Sarah’s “savage” performance brands her as an outsider, impossible to assimilate.

‘Black Venus’

From the start, this movie records the prolonged, dehumanizing rape of a woman by means of many ravenous eyes (and later, lascivious hands). Talk about the killing power of the male gaze as it falls on and frames women in the movies: In Black Venus that violating gaze is democratic and gender-neutral, inviting colonizer, slaver, white supremacist, porn addict, scientist and moviegoer to come on in and enjoy the show.

As powerfully embodied by first-time actress Yahima Torres, Sarah Baartman is isolated in center frame space, a paradigmatic déracinée within the loud, crowded theater in the round that is Black Venus. Though she retreats into silence, Sarah’s eyes continue to draw our gaze. Dark, deep pools, wet with gin or tears, those eyes still hold remnants of a lost, but somehow inviolable soul. In Kechiche’s closeups, those speaking eyes remind us of Falconetti’s luminously liquid gaze in The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Bent back over an ottoman so that her exotic genitalia can be better viewed and handled, the mother of three dead children weeps through her crucifixion. Even her depraved audience has the grace to withdraw at the sight of this mater dolorosa’s tears.

By my lights, Kechiche means to make us participate in the exploitation of Sarah Baartman, not simply bemoan it from some safe emotional distance. He will not allow us to glance, then look quickly away, already formulating abstractions to “name” and contain the horror we have witnessed. Watching the movie generates profound shame, as though we were one of the brutes who display a woman’s body like exotic meat. Ultimately, scientists—with colder cannibal eyes–dissect and preserve Sarah’s glorious flesh, cutting away all her magnificent “foreign” parts in order to prove her incontrovertible Otherness. It is the final desecration of a fertility goddess, out of time and place.

Lea Seydoux, Abdellatif Kechiche and Adèle Exarchopoulos

Blue Is the Warmest Color

In his latest film Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle), Kechiche chronicles the journey of a young Candide (Adèle Exarchopoulos) from homelessness to haven, and finally into exile. Exceeding even his intense survey of Sarah Baartman, Kechiche explores in extreme and persistent closeup the evolving topology of Adèle’s face and, to a lesser extent, her body.

Like Godard’s Nana in My Life to Live, Adèle offers a veiled countenance to the camera as though her face was a chalice, ready for defining communion. Her perpetually half-open mouth and expression of childlike expectancy underscore an outsider’s hunger for sustaining connection. She’s the existential equivalent of Kechiche’s ethnic seekers of community.

Like the high school kids in Games of Love and Chance, teenaged Adèle loves reading Marivaux; and from the get-go, the French playwright’s insights about sex and class color Blue. Our girl comes from modest roots; she devours her mother’s delicious pasta, but doesn’t seem quite at home at the plain family table. When a sweet boy tries to court her, his lack of interest in reading—and their failure to strike sexual sparks—dead-ends the relationship. But Adèle is no blue-stocking, hot for intellectual patter. Quite the opposite: Often the odd-girl-out among her more assertive, outspoken peers, she’s an avid observer, consuming images and experiences as though everything in the world was food for thought.

Kechiche closely peruses Adèle’s sprawled body as she sleeps, registers her earthy appetite for food, catches her constant nervous messing with her unruly mane, alternately roping it in, letting it fall free. At this early stage, the object of his contemplation seems cocooned in her flesh, marking time. Then, magically, she locks glances with a blue-haired elf (Léa Seydoux) passing in the street, and it’s as though Adèle’s unmoored spirit has sighted landfall at last.

For many, the heated sex scene, real or faked, that eventuates between the two enamored girls is highly problematic. After all, Kechiche has directed Exarchopoulos and Seydoux to couple on screen and has framed the explicit spectacle for his/our delectation. In the same issue of The New York Times, A.O. Scott hailed the film as “glorious,” while fellow critic Manohla Dargis penned a long, dissenting piece accusing Blue‘s director of showing an unseemly interest in female derrieres; identifying with male intellectuals in the film who turn the diverse, down-and-dirty realities of women and their sexuality into lofty theory (is it heresy to imagine a comparable gathering, of female critics loftily dissecting the “male gaze”?); and “containing, prettifying and aestheticizing” his heroine’s sexual appetite during intercourse (no visible excretions), though elsewhere he shows her “slurping” food.

Dargis quotes Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel that’s the source of Blue, who called the sex scene “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn.” Even the two actresses who shared the Palme d’Ôr with their director now complain bitterly about the rigors of the shoot. (As primer, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux should have viewed La Belle Noiseuse, Rivette’s slow, long film about a painter ruthlessly discommoding his nude model as he mines aesthetic truth.) The trouble with blaming all on the crucifying male gaze is that it denies the model or actress free will, and robs her of her own sword-crossing gaze.

Each of us dreams her own dream, but cinematic evidence shows that Kechiche consistently returns to certain images and themes—and many of them are clearly on view (from a different coign of vantage) in Blue. They can’t be totally redefined for the sake of feminist or any other kind of critical theory. If he sins here, then he must also be culpable in those earlier films critics so enthusiastically admired. Unless, of course, you believe that some time between Secret of the Grain and Black Venus, Kechiche somehow went bad, so that his “fine and unusual instinct for ordinary beauty” devolved into heartless voyeurism.

Cold and surgical, prettified, exploitative—how polymorphously perverse is Kechiche’s “anxiously patriarchal” eye! None of these adjectives came to mind as I watched the controversial, explicit sex between Emma and Adèle, lovers whose bodies fit together like puzzle pieces. In the ten-minutes(?)-long scene, Kechiche aims for the visual equivalent of Malraux’s “metaphysic of lovemaking.” Within the directorial frame, flesh becomes aesthetic form and palpable landscape. It’s a creative act (on both sides of the camera), and in the course of the scene’s terrible (in its naked intimacy) duration, you feel you’re witnessing sexual terraforming, the birth of a new world. Devouring mouths, the sensual swell and shift of breasts and buttocks, entwined limbs, ecstatic slaps—every part of two anatomies strain to unite, to become one, to achieve the escape from existential exile that sex promises but seldom delivers. For Adèle, everything has led to this moment and everything that follows is a falling away from wholeness and inclusion.

Socioeconomic realities matter, even in the metaphysics of love. Emma’s older, an educated artist at home in a circle of intelligentsia—art dealers, students of Schiele and Klimt, sophisticated parents who serve gourmet seafood dishes Adèle’s never eaten, critics who mouth academic platitudes about the mystical female orgasm and the way women artists “fail to tackle female pleasure.” (Apparently, these poseurs have never seen a Catherine Breillat film!) Dargis complains that when Emma and her women friends don’t take issue with these pronouncements, their “silence is deafening and, like the sex scenes, punctures the movie’s realism.” But Kechiche obviously counts these art-groupies as complicit with the intellectuals who “name” women so arrogantly, men who are modernday equivalents of those “civilized” aristocrats who gaped at and codified Sarah Baartman’s different, dauntingly real female flesh.

‘Blue is the Warmest Color’

Adèle becomes Emma’s muse; her lover catches and frames her in poses of sensual abandon, abstracting her fleshly reality into art. “It’s me and it isn’t me,” Adèle opines, already measuring the faultlines of estrangement.

Adèle grows older, working as a teacher of small children, straightforwardly nonverbal in expressing their needs, easy to touch and be touched by. Emma begins to press her to write, not just for herself, but for publication. The blue-haired elf is gone; her persona’s gone public and she’d like her muse to come out of herself as well. Adèle prepares her mother’s tasty pasta for a party, attended by Emma’s friends. Kechiche shows how marginalized she is in this group, serving her delicious dishes, seeing to the guests’ comforts, but never really gathered in. Adèle’s face has fallen back into that lost, incomplete look—she does not fit. She watches her lover gravitate to a radiantly pregnant woman, new muse and “family” to come. This disengaging social dynamic must be seen in contrast to the private community of two in that earlier, prolonged bout of lovemaking.

Predictably, the paths of these two women diverge, as Emma opts for climbing the social and professional ladder, for a kind of bourgeois security; while Adèle is literally cast into the street. She remains a species of earthy, instinctive child who provides sustenance but can’t find a seat at Emma’s communal table. Once, Kechiche watches her dance (again recalling Anna Karina in My Life to Live), her eyes closed, self-contained in the sensual pleasure of her own swaying body. It’s the same expressive mask that Sarah Baartman sometimes assumes during dance, signaling her withdrawal into some secret shelter.

In the penultimate moments of Blue Is the Warmest Color, culture and class cast Adèle as a definitive outsider. She’s dressed up in a deep-blue dress to attend an upscale show of her former lover’s new paintings. The dress is too richly hued; all of the guests are tastefully attired in muted colors. She is totally out of place, though Emma welcomes her warmly. Everywhere are sensuous drawings of Emma’s new partner, splendidly gravid. The elegant subject of those paintings points to one canvas—a portrait of Emma’s “last duchess”—and, with artless cruelty, reassures the shattered exile: “You’re still here.”

It’s a moment that confirms Kechiche’s brutally honest understanding of the fraught relationship between artist and model, of the way any hungry eye that frames reality must murder to create. It measures the abyss between flesh and blood and its representation in art. Where is the essence of Adèle—the secret of the grain—in Blue Is the Warmest Color? In the woman who’s come undone, who turns her back and walks away from the camera’s gaze? Or is it contained in Emma’s painting (Kechiche’s movie), cynosure of many eyes, companion piece to Poe’s oval portrait?

Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy