Blue Is the Warmest Color’s Skewed Balance of Power (and Pleasure)

It’s hard to imagine Steven Spielberg, the head of the jury at Cannes this year, sitting through Blue Is the Warmest Color and deciding to award it the Palme d’Or, as he did. Maybe it’s because Blue concerns subjects that Spielberg seems mostly allergic to: sex, women, naturalism. Nevertheless, winning the trophy helped Blue Is the Warmest Color tender an immediate audience of film buffs who might not otherwise be ready to settle in for a three-hour movie about the tender but combustible relationship between two women in love. Director Abdellatif Kechiche’s adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Le Bleu Est Une Couleur Chaude is actually much tamer than the firestorm of publicity surrounding it. The film is a naturalistic valentine to first love and first love’s evil twin: first heartbreak. It is told in an ambling, realistic, observational style dominated by close-ups.

The Blue controversy is centered on some extremely overhyped lesbian sex scenes between lead actors Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux have complained about the atmosphere on set, particularly during the sex scenes, calling it “horrible.” Kechiche has fired back by calling the actresses ungrateful. Crew members described the atmosphere as “heavy,” and several quit, with some citing unpaid overtime and broken labor laws. I say “overhyped” because the film’s NC-17 rating and Frenchness might lead you to expect some mind-blowing acts of passion never before depicted on the screen. What you get is some watered-down art movie sex, of the exact sort people used to masturbate to on cable before hard-core pornography was widely available online for free. It seems like Kechiche misinterpreted the “graphic” part of “graphic novel” and makes the mistake that pornography always makes; assuming that what looks best for the camera and spectators will also feel best for the participants.

So we get lesbian sex between two beautiful women, one a teenage initiate, the other older and more experienced, filmed like a teenage boy’s fantasy of a Penthouse letter. The women’s bodies are improbably angled to keep their tits and asses in frame as much as possible. It feels nothing like spontaneous sex, more like the kind of choreography you’d see in a dance number or a fight scene. In the rest of the movie, the camera tries to keep an unobtrusive first person focus on young heroine Adèle (Exarchopoulos), but in the sex scenes it switches to third person. The movie’s tone of unvarnished realism dissolves in these scenes into panting pan and scan. Not only are they unnatural, they commit a much worse sin: They aren’t sexy. They grasp and flail for carnal extemporaneity but come off as rehearsed, strangely cold. They go on far too long, as if the director was afraid he would miss his chance to catalogue the full range of possible positions he believes lesbians have sex in. Attempting to show the greatest lesbian sex ever, the movie does everything it can, missing the crucial opportunity to let the viewer fill in the rest on their own.

There is plenty to love about Blue: Seydoux and Exarchopoulos both give amazing performances, and the movie is worth seeing for that. They make their relationship not just about sex but true intimacy. Kechiche captures the flush of first love through Exarchopoulos’s wonderfully open face, which gradually becomes more guarded. Exarchopoulos uses the wisps of hair falling over her face like caudal limbs. The depiction of Adèle at the beginning of the film as a sexually confused teenager is rendered with complete accuracy. Fumbled attempts to fit in as straight are unfulfilling and painful. It also has the most accurate rendering of the casual homophobia of teenage girls since Mean Girls. Adèle’s female classmates throw around “dyke” as a pejorative to police female sexuality just as much as their male counterparts use “fag,” making sure everyone stays in fear of stepping out of line.

The love story is well paced and told, showing not only the honeymoon period but everything that follows it. Grad student seductress Emma (Seydoux) has blue hair, blue eyes, and swaggering confidence, flattering Adèle intellectually as well as sexually. She cajoles her eventual girlfriend into all kinds of things: eating oysters, drinking something called strawberry milk, studying philosophy, feeling inadequate for not knowing what to say about Egon Schiele at a party full of people with MFAs. The movie’s charm is in its specificity. The shifting tides of a sexual relationship that is structured as mentor and student are as recognizable here as in Annie Hall. Adèle and Emma’s relationship plays out with a depressing familiarity; the magic blue-haired girl can’t save Adèle from her own mundane, sometimes depressing life. Adèle will always compare everything with the high she experienced with Emma.

The movie makes meta-comments on its own problems quite a few times. Someone makes reference to “ball-busting directors” of film. A bisexual male partygoer discusses the differences between the male and female orgasm and concludes that the female orgasm is far superior, almost otherworldly. His belief that men can never understand the mysteries of female sexuality is put to test during the film, as male filmmaker Kechiche’s attempts to depict Adèle’s sexual flowering alternately succeed and falter. The movie wonders aloud, “Can a pleasure be shared? We each experience it differently.” It’s the crux of the issue. The shared encounter between Seydoux, Exarchopoulos, and Kechiche may have been one of pure pleasure for Kechiche, who also had the most overall control. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos might have experienced it much differently than he did, and just because they didn’t complain at the time doesn’t mean they weren’t unhappy. They are not criticizing the film, which everyone involved agrees turned out quite nicely, just stating they felt bullied in a vulnerable state.

Stories of actresses being pushed too far by directors or powerful costars are embarrassingly commonplace; Tippi Hedren in The Birds, Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris, Björk in Dancer in the Dark. When these movies do well and bring their lead actresses acclaim, their complaints are often dismissed with an implication that they should be happy they got what they wanted: attention. When the movies don’t do well, such complaints are rarely even heard. There is a very imbalanced power dynamic between the spectator and the spectated, which the movie draws in parallel to the one between blue-haired casanova Emma and the doe-like Adèle, who is really not more than a child when the movie starts. The sparks that Exarchopoulos and Seydoux generate are real, but they are most genuine when the girls are just displaying public affection for one another.

There are a lot of reasons why Seydoux and Exarchopoulos may have followed the director’s commands while filming, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to feel regret or sadness afterward about the way it went down. They are even allowed to express anger about it whenever and however they want. It doesn’t seem like the sort of negative publicity any movie would purposely court, no matter how provocative. The actresses were awarded the Palme d’Or with Kechiche, making them the first women to win the award since 1993, when Jane Campion won for The Piano. No other women have won the prestigious film prize. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos act their luscious asses off in the movie, and all praise is due to them, but they are not film directors, and it feels a little bizarre to give actresses the award when actual female directors still aren’t being awarded it.

Spielberg was partially behind the “unorthodox” decision to give the actresses two-thirds of the award, stating “Had the casting been 3 percent wrong, it wouldn’t have worked like it did for us.” And one does wonder if Blue’s palatability to straight men is the key to its success; its gorgeous French ingenues kissing through soft-filtered light. There is the occasional intrusion of a true teen girl in Exarchopoulos’s incredible performance; a moment when the blubbering Adèle eats a candy bar in bed, a crying jag that escalates into snot streaming into her mouth. But the camera dotes on Exarchopoulos’s extremely young features (she is 19, playing 15 at the film’s start) and contrasting womanly body with a gaze that is sometimes empathetic and protective, but other times just an outright leer. It was enough to take me out of the film, which otherwise aims for complete immersion, at those times. Kechiche even lingers on the asses of female statues in a museum, in a wink that feels leaden.

In the film, Adèle and her classmates study Pierre de Marivaux and reference Dangerous Liaisons, the classical observations about courtly life applying equally easily to the just-as-formal strictures of high school cliques. The paradigm of the high school cafeteria proves to be a primer for adult life, where the social rules are even more invisible but just as strict. Things about this movie that are very French: student protests as fun social gathering, zero veneers, pregnant women drinking flutes of champagne at art openings, casual references to Sartre, a teenage girl who looks like Chantal Goya. Also, everyone smokes cigarettes everywhere at every age. It’s so French that at times I wondered why the central couple didn’t simply resolve their issues by entering into a ménage à trois. But given the issues with Kechiche presented by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, maybe three was not the magic number for Blue Is the Warmest Color. It sure wasn’t the magic number of hours.

Filed Under: Cannes, Steven Spielberg

Photo on 2014-01-10 at 12.58 #3

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

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