A weekly investigation of gender, race, and sexuality in media & entertainment.
Blue is the Warmest Color, the three-hour-long “lesbian coming-of-age story” from France has generated controversy after controversy since it won the Palme d’Or, the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, in May. This prize was indeed more noteworthy than most years; the Steven-Spielberg-led jury awarded the honor to not only the director of the film, the traditional recipient, but also to his two lead actresses. The prize was also noteworthy in that the film, which was adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel of the same name, immediately had critics in a frenzy over its three very long and very graphic sex scenes between the two lead ingénues, 19-year-old Adèle Exarchopoulos and 28-year-old Léa Seydoux.
Much of the hatin’ has targeted the film’s middle-aged, male Tunisian director, Abdellatif Kechiche. Since Cannes, he’s proved himself to be a newcomer to the limelight by stumbling into gaffe after pathetic gaffe. (A few choice Kechiche headlines of recent weeks: Blue is the Warmest Color Shouldn’t Be Released, Director Says; Blue is the Warmest Color Director, Stars Spar over Sex Scene Working Conditions; Blue is the Warmest Color Director Changes His Mind, Says The Film Should Be Released After All; Cannes winner Abdellatif Kechiche hits back at stars). These missteps are somewhat understandable, given that the man has been bombarded with the sudden glare of media attention and a mega-onslaught of criticism since taking home one of the top prizes in film. But those who worked with Kechiche corroborate the unsavory impression many have of him; Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s dual-interview with The Daily Beast back in early September made him sound like nothing short of a monster.
I saw the film at this year’s Telluride Film Festival, and in Kechiche’s introduction to the screening of Blue, he somehow managed to tell us, in what is now his trademark bumbling fashion, that it was okay if we walked out early because it was a long film. WHAT? That was silly and weird, but I forgot about it, until reading his media-reported verbal blunders in the weeks that followed. I don’t want to give him too much credit—he does indeed say some stupid shit—but the U.S. press has pummeled the man for months now, and it’s to the point that we look like nitpicky bullies.
Beyond Kechiche’s awkward candor and the silly “controversy!” stories it has inspired, there are two actual controversies surrounding the film that I am actually interested in outright addressing, and that have been floating around since before the Cannes award ceremony. These are 1) the sex scenes’ credibility and accuracy, and 2) the male gaze of Kechiche’s vision. I’ll address these, but I don’t want you, dear reader, to get lost in my negativity; I love this film, and I think it’s important. So if you read no further: please go see it. It opens stateside, in limited release, this Friday, October 25th.
First, there’s question of the credibility, or factual accuracy, of the sex scenes. For starters, these scenes are very long. The first and the longest clocks in at seven minutes (or six-and-a-half? why are we bickering over this?!), and that is a really long time to watch two completely nude people have graphic simulated sex with one another, regardless of gender! And I don’t say “graphic” lightly, here—but when tongues are disappearing into vaginas (or to be more accurate, a mysterious, hidden vagina prosthesis of some kind), and the orgasms just pile up on top of one another amid the slapping of full nude body to full nude body, mouth-to-every-lady-part-there-is…I feel okay classifying the scenes as graphic. I clarify this because I’ve picked up on a distinct current of “that’s homophobic, to say they are graphic” response to that word in particular.
3) a : marked by clear lifelike or vividly realistic description
b : vividly or plainly shown or described
In other words: I am not saying the scenes are offensive or gratuitous (although other critics/pundits have thrown around that adjective, wrongly in my opinion)—some stories just necessitate the graphic depiction of sex to get the filmmaker’s message across. In Blue, it’s meant to illustrate the extraordinary physical attraction and bedroom chemistry the women have to one another.
Here’s the first part of the big “content” issue. Maroh (the author of the source material) along with many other real-life lesbians out there, have criticized the sex scenes’ accuracy—which, if substantiated, would be nothing short of a breaking point for the film’s credibility as a work of art. But, luckily for the Kechiche & Co., plenty of other lesbians have since voiced support for the sex’s accuracy, even if they have criticisms of its other artistic qualities. (Judith Dry’s well-written critique—even if it is on Indiewire—is here.) Quelle confusemment!!! Could it be that different lesbians have different kinds of lesbian sex?
Even Maroh’s feelings on the sex scenes have been distorted in the recent dust-ups. Her full blog post on the subject is very well-phrased, self-aware, and very fair, in my opinion. She doesn’t think the scenes are necessarily inaccurate, unlike the NYT and many other publications would have us all believe—they’re just poorly presented. A PDF of the post can be found here. The cherry-picked blurbs that most publications/articles have sampled—“It appears to me that this is what was missing from the set: lesbians.” & “…this is what it all brings to my mind: a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and made me very ill at ease.”—are grossly misleading taken out of context, making Maroh sound purely scathing and ungrateful. She’s not, and within the same segment of the blog post, she clarifies that this POV is just her take, and she’s interested in what other women will have to say about the sex scenes. She also bows to Kechiche’s right to make his own artistic decisions, even if she doesn’t approve and it happens to be her source material (and autobiographical content). The obvious omission of Maroh’s qualifying statements makes her sound far more disapproving than she actually is. She’s been presented throughout the media as an ungrateful, lesbian bitch, and strangely, this might be the most upsetting thing about the media storm that has surrounded this film. All for some catchy headlines? Now that’s just trashy journalism, y’all.
There’s one more controversy I want to at least mention, even if its thorough analysis will have to wait for another time. It’s an ongoing, major argument in feminist scholarship that we’ve been debating for decades.
I’m talking about that pesky “male gaze” present in the sex scenes—or, more broadly, the scenes with nudity, which is a lot of the film—and the problematic intersection that gaze has with the meaning or message of the story. The male gaze, here, belonging to Kechiche and to his intended audience. Because these days, we are all so used to the male gaze being the norm, most of us—even women, even thoughtful, political women—don’t even notice it anymore. It’s definitely present in this film—the sex scenes, with two beautiful and nude French women, seem like they’re acting out a distinctly male fantasy. It’s voyeuristic, and it’s clearly incongruous to its overall message and subject matter.
So I understand why people (namely, anyone who calls her or himself a feminist) are upset about it. This issue isn’t new. Almost all working directors are male—only one woman has ever won the best director Oscar (Kathryn Bigelow) and only three have ever been nominated (Bigelow, Jane Campion, and Sofia Coppola). Plus, it’s a well-known (and unfortunately, accepted) fact in Hollywood that, in general, women will see movies that are targeted at men, while men won’t see movies targeted at women. In other words, Blue’s sex scenes look as though they were designed and filmed as the male ideal—a man is doing the designing and filming, and his target audience seems male, not female. Women will see it anyway, or so the Hollywood logic goes, and men won’t go see it unless it’s just as they want it.
This doesn’t make it right. Especially in this instance, because the American masses won’t flock to a three-hour, subtitled indie, and making a boatload of money isn’t the film’s primary “purpose.” Thus the mainstream rules that govern our modern filmmakers’ artistic (err, let’s be honest: marketing) decisions don’t, or shouldn’t, apply here. This is a film about a woman (Exarchopoulos’s character), her coming-of-age, her sexuality’s journey to self-actualization, and her first love. The male gaze should not be a factor in this film.
But the male gaze is the target audience for at least 95% of all sex scenes that make it up onscreen today, to one extent or another. Again, it’s not right, but with Blue, I fear we’re missing the triumphant forest for the nitpicking trees and drawing attention away from the positive details that earned this film the first three-way Palme D’Or in history. It is a stunning film—nearly every frame is just gorgeously shot—and despite the simplicity of the story (coming. of. age.), it’s somehow engrossing and immensely moving! I haven’t been so heartbroken watching a “relationship” film in ages, maybe ever. Another fear: that all the media negativity and headline-grabbing spin may scare future filmmakers from taking on projects with such subject matter. Or, future filmmakers will be intimidated into producing queer characters simplistically, thus drying out the beauty, ugliness, and simple humanness that any good film should aspire to depict. No matter the sexuality of the characters.
This is where I leave you. Two final messages of my own: go see this film if its NC-17 rating hasn’t spooked your local movie theaters into not running it, and parse out these issues for yourself. Secondly, check out what Steven Spielberg had to say about the film at Cannes (from this AP article, published on many a website worldwide on May 26):
“The film is a great love story that made all of us feel privileged to be a fly on the wall, to see this story of deep love and deep heartbreak evolve from the beginning. The director didn’t put any constraints on the narrative, on the storytelling. He let the scenes play in real life.”
Spielberg called Kechiche a “sensitive, observant filmmaker.”
“Gay marriage is something that many brave states in America are resolving,” said Spielberg. “This film actually carries a wry, strong message, a very positive message.”
This is why it won. It’s the art we should focus on. This is what’s important. This is why, at the end of the day, Blue is the Warmest Color is a triumph—flaws and all.
Ed. Note: This column originally misstated Judith Dry’s name as “Judith Day.” Our bad!