There is probably no living director who can do what Abdellatif Kechiche can with actors. His amazing collaborations are incomparable. He pulls out some of the most natural and stirring performances from people who often have little experience. When Blue Is the Warmest Color burst onto the scene via Cannes with the Palme d'Or and best actress wins for the film's two leads, nearly every film critics group, from the Florida Film Critics Circle to the Central Ohio Film Critics Association, to the big shots in New York to L.A., gave it the best foreign language picture.
And passion is the key word in the Franco-Tunisian writer/director/actor's oeuvre. You'll see it in the two love affairs as well as the friendships of a Tunisian immigrant trying to survive in Paris in Kechiche's first film, 2000's La Faute à Voltaire (a.k.a. Blame it on Voltaire or Poetical Refugee). Passion also fuels many wonderful extended scenes featuring teenagers who live in a Parisian immigrant housing project, as they tangle with youthful feelings of love and - again — friendship in 2003's L'Esquive (Games of Love and Chance).
Then there is the lower-key but more sophisticated, La Graine et le Mulet (The Secret of the Grain), from 2007. Kechiche found a new kind of ease with the extended scene when he presented a family whose patriarch decides to open a couscous restaurant on a derelict boat. Then, if you really want controversy, forget Blue is the Warmest Color. In 2010's Vénus noire (Black Venus), the filmmaker took on the true, 19th century story of a woman from Cape Town brought to London and then Paris for exhibition as a freak show. Kechiche pulls no punches in presenting the atrocity of her exploitation, offering a disturbing indictment on white superiority alongside black complacency and complicity.
Miami will have the unique opportunity to see all of these films in a two-weekend retrospective called "Kechiche Before Blue" hosted by the Coral Gables Art Cinema. With the cooperation of the French Embassy and its Films on the Beach program, the art cinema will screen rarely seen 35mm celluloid prints with English subtitles. This marks quite an achievement considering La Faute à Voltaire and Vénus noire never got U.S. distribution. L'Esquive might as well have no distributor considering the DVD has been out of print for years. The only easily obtainable film is La Graine et le Mulet, which can at least be found on the Criterion Collection.
Though it’s a tragedy that these films are hard to see at home, it’s a blessing that the Coral Gables Art Cinema has lined them up to be seen in order of their original release over two weekends. None of them are stinkers. They each exist on a high level of cinema. It may have something to do with Kechiche’s experience as an actor prior to his becoming a director.
His focus on bodies and dialogue fuel the action in his films with an earthy humanity. Some have noted how his dramas feel as natural as documentaries. That he captures quality performances in extended scenes with actors who often have had no prior experience in movies, speaks to his great skill as a director. In an interview with the Institut français du Royaume-Uni, he once said, "You're getting this evolution of a scene. You're getting an evolution of the relationship between actors, and it ceases to be acting, so to speak, and actually just becomes life."
As a matter of fact, his films feel so lived in, you feel as though you have been transported to someone else’s life as a fly on the wall. They are also beautifully shot without any camera gimmicks. He eschews soft-lighting or hyper-stylization to transmit his particular affection for people. He presents flattering images of people being people. His eye for shooting the natural beauty of women in particular is consistently flawless throughout his filmography. Too often derisively being called out for a “male gaze” in Blue, his camera genuinely reveals immense affection for his women, many of whom went on to win awards if not nominations for their performances.
You probably have not seen him as an actor. His most popular film is the 2005 indie Sorry, Haters, playing a taxi driver opposite Robin Wright. It was the last film he acted in. As a Franco-Tunisian, his roles as an actor have been limiting. But as a filmmaker he taps into his heritage, celebrating its universal humanity while staying sensitively attuned to a life of prejudice in a post-colonial society. His first film de-romanticizes the idyllic notion of Paris and presents a city that treats both immigrants and the mentally ill with a cold indifference. However, there is never a single character who Kechiche portrays as anything less than dignified. These are people he want to laugh, love and live. The film’s highlight has to be the impromptu party in an Arab café.
But nothing captures the misfortunes of the second class more disturbingly than Vénus noire, which tells the shocking, true story of Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman. Kechiche discovered the film’s titular lead, Yahima Torres, working as a Spanish teacher in Paris. The Cuban actress brings to life the cigar smoking, whisky swilling “Hottentot Venus,” as a woman numbed to her own exploitation. The film could very well aggravate some, as no one is innocent in what happened to this woman who is made to shake her ass at the crack of whip after being brought out of a cage on stage in the early 1800s. It’s no accident that her dance and gestures on stage bring to mind twerking by the likes of Nicki Minaj, who has shown no shame in exploiting her own body for corporate, popular entertainment. Then there’s the film’s opening scene, revealing Baartman as a body cast after her death. There’s a prominent feature a doctor refers to as the “Hottentot apron,” best left to your imagination.
Indeed, Kechiche’s films can be controversial, but they also reveal a humanity both touching and daring. Many of his films run long (none are under two hours), but none lack any intensity to relent pacing. In the end, this retrospective is a film experience you will unlikely be able to have a chance to experience again in your lifetime. It’s a can’t miss opportunity for fans of Blue is the Warmest Color but cinema in general.
Each film in the Kechiche Before Blue retrospective shows one day only at 1 p.m., Saturday and Sunday for the weekends of July 4 and July 11. Tickets are $11.50 for each film or you can see all four films with a series pass for $20. Visit www.gablescinema.com for more information.
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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos (indieethos.com) if not in New Times.