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This Is Not Lesbian Pornography: Blue Is The Warmest Color, Defended

Illustration for article titled This Is Not Lesbian Pornography: Blue Is The Warmest Color, Defended

Blue Is the Warmest Color should have been one of the feel-good stories of the fall. A moving three-hour drama about a young woman named Adèle's (Adèle Exarchopoulos) coming-of-age while pursuing a passionate relationship with her first love, an out lesbian named Emma (Léa Seydoux), this French film won the top prize at this summer's Cannes Film Festival from a jury headed by Steven Spielberg, who's been a vocal advocate of its raw immediacy and terrific performances. Critics and audiences go to film festivals for lots of reasons, but one of them is to discover great movies from unknown or emerging talents. At Cannes, Blue Is the Warmest Color was that movie: one of those revelatory, life-changing experiences that reminds you why you fell in love with films in the first place. I couldn't wait for other people to see it.


Five months later, I don't know if anyone ever will be able to see Blue Is the Warmest Color the same way that I did, and I think that's a terrible shame. It's natural that films evolve after a rapturous reception at a film festival: An unheralded small gem suddenly is looked at with more scrutiny outside of a sometimes-too-forgiving festival environment. But Blue's journey from Cannes to its U.S. release this Friday has been tortuous, especially for those of us who adore the film. And most of it has been brought on by the film's makers.

When Blue started making waves out of Cannes, it was for its frank lesbian sex scenes that stretch out for several minutes—although not to 20, as was initially rumored. Rated NC-17 in the States, Blue shows us sex for some of the same reasons that Last Tango in Paris did: to provide us with another facet of a couple's relationship. Blue's naked sex scenes are erotic, intense and unguarded—they suggest unequivocally that these two women are deeply attracted and connected to one another.

Initially, it seemed like these stunning scenes would be a selling point for some audience members who wouldn't normally check out a thoughtful, quiet three-hour French relationship drama. But now they're the target for much of the backlash against the movie. First the assault came from Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel from which the movie is based. Dismissing the sex scenes as "porn," Maroh (who's a lesbian) criticized Blue for casting two straight actresses and for being made by a straight man, director Abdellatif Kechiche, essentially accusing them of not having the necessary prerequisites to depict lesbian sex accurately. A different charge was leveled by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, who disapproved of the filmmaker's (to her mind) lustful fascination with his attractive young actresses: "[When Adèle] sleeps with her derrière prettily framed, the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else."

Such criticisms are fair, even if I disagree with them, but it was much harder to shake off the complaints the two actresses started hurling at their director soon after. In a September 1 interview in The Daily Beast, Seydoux called the experience of making the film "horrible" and Exarchopoulos added, "[Kechiche] is a genius, but he’s tortured. We wanted to give everything we have, but sometimes there was a kind of manipulation, which was hard to handle." They described the filming of the sex scenes—and a later lengthy argument scene—as grueling, and they both said they'd never work for him again. That was bad enough, but Kechiche certainly didn't help his cause by ridiculing his actresses in a separate interview, singling out Seydoux's supposed trouble finding the character for the reason why the shoot went much longer than anticipated and accusing her of being spoiled. The back-and-forth sniping continued, with the low point perhaps coming last month when Kechiche confessed, "According to me, the film shouldn't be released, it has been soiled too much."

We're used to colorful back stories and inflated brouhahas impinging on our relationship with a movie. (Lars Von Trier, for one, can't seem to make a film without pissing off his leading lady or saying something stupid at a press conference.) In the world of art house cinema, which doesn't have the high profile of even the lowliest Hollywood movie, a little attention-causing controversy never hurts. But instead of Blue's NC-17 rating causing that controversy, it's the question of whether the man who demanded such intense performances went too far to achieve them. Suddenly, the emotional starkness on display in Blue doesn't feel like the work of three like-minded artists working in unison but, rather, the results of an older, unwavering tyrant (Kechiche is 52) browbeating his young actresses to keep filming even when, according to Seydoux, Exarchopoulos cut herself during an argument scene.

These accusations fundamentally change the perception of Blue's intentions—and could, I fear, irreparably alter viewers' impressions of what Kechiche and his actresses accomplished. The movie's intimacy and honesty—which is suggested by the spontaneous, natural performances and Kechiche's caught-on-the-fly handheld shooting style—are delivered with such rawness that we don't want to think it was achieved underhandedly. And if these two women stripped for extended sex scenes and later felt that he was too demanding of them, then the discussion shifts uncomfortably toward questions of male power plays and female subjugation. That's more serious than Von Trier making dumb jokes about identifying with Adolf Hitler. It gets close to exploitation.


I don't want to dismiss the actresses' complaints. But I also don't think they should overshadow Blue's considerable merits. If Kechiche was as demanding as they claim—which is almost certainly the case—then he is hardly the first demanding filmmaker to ever produce a great movie from his unreasonable on-set demeanor. (Stanley Kubrick made a career seeking elusive perfection.) As for the accusations that Kechiche's camera is too fixated on his young actresses, venturing into creepy/leery territory, I think that's a far trickier matter. Rewatching Blue a week ago, I tried to be attentive to whether or not Kechiche's use of frequent closeups on Adèle, the film's main character, were at all pervy—something I never once thought was an issue when I saw the movie at Cannes. And this is where it gets more complicated, because this time I couldn't help but notice the extended closeups of Adèle in bed or elsewhere.

But with that said, one person's accusation of creepiness is, for me, part of Kechiche's attempt to chronicle a young woman's sexual awakening in unsparing, up-close detail. What has been lost amidst the controversy of Blue Is the Warmest Color is the fact that it's less a sexy drama than it is a calm character piece. It's about how an impressionable young woman slowly and sometimes painfully learns to grow up, grasping at things that she thinks will make her happy and finally coming to a place of self-confidence and maturity. Kechiche is unflinching in chronicling that transformation: We're by Adèle's side throughout the movie, and Exarchopoulos gives an incredible performance that's so open and uninhibited, playing Adèle as an uncertain, somewhat awkward young woman whose anxious eyes say more than her words ever do.


Blue's love story stretches three hours because it takes that amount of time to establish this woman as an unconfident, searching high school student who takes a stab at an unsatisfying heterosexual relationship before becoming transfixed by Emma, who's a few years older than her and a driven artist. Adèle gravitates to Emma in part because Emma has a confidence and a purpose that she herself lacks. (Like a lot of early relationships, Adèle falls in love with what the person represents as much as for her physical attractiveness.) And their sex scenes serve as an important indicator of the intensity of that passion—like the fights they'll have later, they have such ferocity that it's clear these lovers will either end up together forever or they'll kill each other. (As for Maroh's complaints that at her screening "gay and queer [viewers] laughed because it's not convincing, and found it ridiculous," I think it's always dicey to start judging sex scenes on their "accuracy." Even if Blue had featured a "lesbian adviser" to coach the actresses, there's no saying that person wouldn't have suggested positions that others would have found equally ridiculous.)

When I saw Blue Is the Warmest Color at Cannes, I knew that the film would provoke some complaints. The explicit scenes would no doubt bother some, and the movie's depiction of a gay love story in a year in which marriage equality was front-page news in both France and the United States would draw attention. (Same-sex marriage actually became legal in France four days before Blue's premiere.) I guess I should be happy, then, that as Blue gets ready to be released in the U.S., there's been virtually nothing in the press about the movie's lesbian love affair. Unfortunately, that's probably because all of the attention has gone into dissecting Kechiche's intentions instead. It's very possible that Kechiche was unbearably hard on his actresses. It's also very possible that he was searching for an honesty that he knew his story demanded—and the clear sympathy his movie shows toward Adèle suggests that he went about that honesty because he wanted to tell her story with as much love as possible. That's what's been overlooked: For all the charges of Kechiche bullying his actresses, Blue radiates love for these two characters. This is a heartbreaking and wise movie about how relationships grow, evolve and are challenged over time. Maybe Kechiche made mistakes on set—he certainly did afterward when he ripped into his leads in interviews—but those failings stop at the water's edge of the movie itself. Debate his intentions or his perspective on the material, but don't doubt the beauty and the depth of feeling contained in this film. Like Adèle, it remains intact and vibrant despite the difficulties it took to get here.


Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.