CANNES, France — Though sex scenes have become something of a rarity at the American multiplex, the pendulum tends to swing in the other direction at the Cannes Film Festival, where unabashed directors from all over the globe present art films chockablock with nude encounters.
Still, even by those more permissive standards, Abdellatif Kechiche’s new Cannes contender, “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo” will probably set tongues wagging.
A three-and-a-half-hour testament to twerking and oral intercourse, “Intermezzo” plays like the world’s artiest “Girls Gone Wild” video, and as his actresses doff their clothes to cavort on a beach and in a nightclub, Kechiche’s single-minded focus on their fannies proves so obsessive that even Sir Mix-A-Lot might blanch.
Kechiche’s tendency to ogle his actresses should come as no surprise: Six years ago, he took the festival by storm with “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” a lesbian love story filled with such lengthy sex scenes that even his lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, called the film exploitative. Still, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” proved to be a critical sensation, and the leads’ chemistry was so ferocious that Exarchopoulos and Seydoux split the Palme d’Or with their director.
I expect such prizes will elude “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo,” even though Kechiche pawned his Palme to finance the project after producers balked at the director’s ballooning shoot. Originally intended to be a single-film adaptation of a French novel, Kechiche has now blown that material out into two films with no end in sight.
There are plenty of other ends in sight over the span of the budding “Mektoub” franchise: After the 2017 installment, “Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno,” chronicled several young women shaking their derrières in an attempt to entice young Amin (Shaïn Boumedine), this film picks up with many of those girls sunbathing at the beach.
Here, Kechiche lavishes the same attention on the women’s bikini bottoms that other filmmakers might spend on their faces. (When two men approach a sunbather and remark, “We saw you from behind earlier,” the audience can only nod in assent.)
But it is all prelude for the film’s centerpiece, a three-hour nightclub sequence in which the characters circle each other until they get the greenlight to pair off, as if they’re playing a game of musical chairs where no participant can sit down because then Kechiche would be unable to film their posterior.
Conservatively, at least half of this three-hour block must have been spent watching the lead actresses twerk. “Can you die from twerking for too long?” I wondered. “Was there a paramedic on set?” The women’s stamina is ultimately terrifying: At key junctures, “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo” feels like “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” but for butts.
There are a few interludes where the characters break away to discuss rear ends instead of shaking them, and the slightest hint of a plot is advanced by Ophélie (Ophélie Bau), who is carrying one character’s child, engaged to another, and willing to flirt with at least two more.
Ophélie eventually escapes to a bathroom with the persistent Aimé (Roméo De Lacour) for a 13-minute oral-sex scene that picks up where Kechiche left off with “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Did the actors go at it for real? It sure looks that way, though I was mostly distracted by the way Ophélie’s sneakers slid across those bathroom floor tiles, emitting sharp squeaks like a flock of outraged baby birds.
In the waning days of the Cannes Film Festival, can Kechiche’s sex epic still earn headlines and draw audiences? Unsimulated intercourse is always a good controversy-starter on the Croisette, though after Chloë Sevigny and Vincent Gallo did the dirty in “The Brown Bunny” and Gaspar Noé put his actors through their pornographic paces for “Love 3-D,” it may not pack the punch it used to.
More attention in the coming days and months is likely to be spent debating Kechiche’s gaze in the era of #MeToo, especially since the director managed to find a competitive berth in Cannes despite being accused of sexual assault last year. (He denied the accusations.) Higher-ups at Cannes are working to include more women behind the camera, but there’s no equality in front of Kechiche’s lens: At the end of “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo,” when a man gets out of bed, the camera cuts so fast away from his impending nudity, you’ll laugh at Kechiche’s sudden discretion.