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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Black, Blue, and a Secret: The Films of Abdellatif Kechiche

Black, Blue, and a Secret: 
The Films of Abdellatif Kechiche

By Joshua Handler

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank French distributor MK2 for their support of this article.

After seeing and falling in love with Blue is the Warmest Color, I decided to look back at the past three films of Abdellatif Kechiche: 2007's The Secret of the Grain, 2010's Black Venus, and 2013's Blue is the Warmest Color.  

Many have observed that the films of Abdellatif Kechiche explore protagonists who don't feel as if they belong in society – immigrants of sorts who strive for better lives.  The Secret of the Grain tells the story of Slimane, an older man of Tunisian descent living in France.  After getting fired from his job, he decides that he wants to open his own restaurant that specializes in serving his ex-wife's specialty: mullet with couscous.  However, opening the restaurant is an uphill battle.  In Black Venus, Saartjie Baartman, is an African woman brought from South Africa to Europe by a brutal man, Hendrick Caezar, who exploits her by making her perform in a circus show.  In Blue is the Warmest Color, Adèle is a teenager who struggles with her sexuality before coming out as lesbian.  She begins a relationship with the slightly older Emma and experiences love and heartbreak over their long relationship. 

Kechiche’s voyeuristic style makes watching his films both intimate and off-putting, depending on the film.  In The Secret of the Grain and Blue is the Warmest Color, Kechiche’s voyeuristic gaze allows us, the audience, to feel as if we are flies on the wall looking in at family conversations or intimate scenes of love.  During a family dinner scene early in The Secret of the Grain, Slimane’s family gathers together to feast and chat.  During this scene, Kechiche looks in on the family and focuses his camera on people’s faces at seemingly random points showing the smallest of facial movements and reactions.  Through watching these small reactions, we get a feeling for this family’s dynamics.  Few other filmmakers would focus on these small moments, but Kechiche does and by doing so, creates a richer film.  Each scene in his films runs very long – so long in fact that it feels as if we are living these scenes along with his characters.  Nothing seems scripted.  As we live with the characters in his films for the 150-180 minutes that each film runs, they begin to feel like family and we care for them (the sympathetic ones, at least).  What’s fascinating about Black Venus though, is that Kechiche places us in the position of an audience member at Saartjie’s performances, purposefully making Saartjie an object.  Looking at these shows as an audience member in the modern day makes them more horrifying.  Kechiche only allows us a few moments to look into Saartjie’s soul.  These emotional moments are perfectly conveyed by actress Yahima Torres.  This is the only of the three films in which the lead actor takes a back seat to Kechiche’s voyeurism. 

The kind of voyeurism in Black Venus is one that purposefully alienates us from the lead character.  In Secret and Blue, it is used to take us into the characters’ lives and make us care for them – something that sets Kechiche apart from other voyeuristic filmmakers.  While each voyeuristic method works for each film, Kechiche’s involvement with his characters in Secret and Blue is much more interesting as it allows for layers to form.  Black Venus’ detachment is so extreme for so long (the film runs 159 minutes) that the film, while ultimately very effective, gradually becomes more tedious.  The tediousness of Black Venus, however, takes us into the mind of Saatrjie in its own way as we gradually begin to feel worn out, like her, which is both a blessing and a curse for the film.  If it is not obvious, while I think Black Venus is a good movie, I’m very conflicted on its methods.

Kechiche has a way of building films on simple pieces that accumulate to devastating finales.  The Secret of the Grain is always involving, but for a while, it is so mundane that I began to wonder whether the film was going anywhere, but the characters are so interesting and Kechiche’s eye is so sharp that it never becomes boring.  Kechiche is always in control of his material, carefully building conflict on seemingly simple, insignificant scenes.  Relationships are created and conflicts are revealed.  Each plot point isn’t explicitly stated due to the length of the scenes.  While many may find Kechiche’s films’ lengths self-indulgent, I believe them to be one of the keys to their successes.

Also, I did not neglect to mention the actors in his films.  His work with young and inexperienced actresses is miraculous.  In Blue is the Warmest Color, Kechiche cast newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos who gave what may be the single greatest female performance in cinema history.  There are performances where I forget I’m watching an actor and then there is Exarchopoulos’ performance where I forgot I was even watching a movie.  Her mastery of every emotional beat made those beats simply feel like life, not something created for art. 

Hafsia Herzi in The Secret of the Grain also gives a performance as passionate as any, as does Yahima Torres in Black Venus who has the near-impossible task of making us feel for a character who is made to be looked upon as an object.  Torres was originally a Spanish teacher before Kechiche befriended her and cast her in the film.  It seems as if these actresses don’t have the masks that well-known actresses have.  They have no emotions to hide.  I have no idea what Kechiche does to elicit these performances, but whatever he does is magic.

These are just a few thoughts I have on the work of Abdellatif Kechiche.  If you have not seen any of the films featured in this article, do yourselves a favor and do so.  Blue is the Warmest Color was recently nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and is still in theaters.  The Criterion Collection will release it on Blu-ray and DVD in February.  The Secret of the Grain is available on iTunes and on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.  Unfortunately, Black Venus has not been released in the United States due to a lack of a distributor, but is available in many other countries around the world.

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