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Does It Matter That ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ Is a Lesbian Film Without Realistic Lesbian Sex?

Blue Is the Warmest Color was a sensation when it screened at the Cannes Film Festival early this summer. The most literal sign of its success is that it won the Palme d’Or. In a maneuver that suggested some of the politics of the film, the award was given not just to the director, Abdellatif Kechiche; it was also given to the two actresses who star in the film: Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. The Cannes jury has done that before, in fact just last year they gave it to the stars of Amour as well as to Michael Haneke, the director. The move has taken on a particular kind of post hoc symbolism because the PR around the film is basically in bloody shreds, with the actresses fighting, the director unhappy, and charges of male gaze souring the whole thing.

Blue Is the Warmest Color is an adaptation of a prizewinning French graphic novel by Julie Maroh. A young woman (here played by Exarchopoulos) comes to term with her lesbianism in the context of her relationship with an artist (Seydoux). The artist happens to have blue hair. The love affair doesn’t last, as love affairs often don’t, for reasons which are less than clear to either party. But in between there is a fair amount of sex and angst and also transcendent happiness. The film is three hours long; it has time to linger over these other aspects of the romance.

As such, Blue Is the Warmest Color is one of the most beautiful movies you’ll have seen in years. Everyone is lit perfectly, and not in the crass way of the big Hollywood films. This is not polished-surface beauty; people look like people. That everyone looks like a paragon of apparent physical perfection, without looking like they’ve been makeupped and backlit within an inch of their lives, is a testament to the technical mastery behind the film. It’s a pleasure to watch.

And yet.

The camera’s lingering gaze has made the film controversial. A sort of tempest in a teapot arose in the small, insular, and perhaps-fascinating-only-to-a-small-selection world of film critics. Manohla Dargis wrote a post at the New York Times in which she observed that:

However sympathetic are the characters and Ms. Exarchopoulos, who produces prodigious amounts of tears and phlegm along with some poignant moments, Mr. Kechiche registers as oblivious to real women. He’s as bad as the male character who prattles on about “mystical” female orgasms and art without evident awareness of the barriers female artists faced or why those barriers might help explain the kind of art, including centuries of writhing female nudes, that was produced.

In other words, she accused Kechiche of making a movie about lesbians which caters primarily to the male gaze. Cue a thousand incensed blog posts (many written by men) about how wrong this was. Apparently, there were even rumors at Cannes that the Palme d’Or was some kind of rebuke to Dargis, a rumor that even if true I think she should take as a massive compliment. Someone’s obviously feeling threatened.

One point: It doesn’t help the arguments of defensive men, I think, that in the original graphic novel, there was no Adèle, per se. The character there was named Clémentine, but evidently the director decided not only to rename the character but retitle the entire film (in French it’s known as La vie d’Adèle), inspired by the name of his nubile 19-year-old star. Hm. Take from that what you will, I guess.

Anyway, on the merits: “male gaze” is becoming one of those terms like “misogynist,” in that it is more often used by skeptics of feminist cultural commentary than by true believers. Here is my own view: I think a male gaze exists, but I think we don’t know what the content of it is yet. That’s mostly because women just haven’t been sufficiently allowed to participate in, as here, the cinematic language of sex. Anthony Lane brings that home particularly bluntly, if unintentionally, in his review of the film this week, remarking that, “In short, there are — as Spielberg, of all people, will have noticed — more traces of Truffaut here than there are of ‘Last Tango in Paris.'” Women have no dominion here, as it were.

To be clear, I don’t know for sure that women qua women would film this differently or more sensitively. And I recoil, somewhat, from the idea that women necessarily see sex differently, that there is only one “women’s perspective” which would become evident if more women directors got more work. I just think that if women had been better allowed, as a matter of money, to work in the medium we’d end up with a more diverse set of perspectives to define the filmic language of sex. Which can’t be a bad thing.

There are, after all, limits to the kind of knowledge any one kind of person might have. After Blue Is the Warmest Color won the Palme d’Or, Maroh, the author of the graphic novel, took to her blog to offer a pretty excellent response. She stated outright that as far as she was concerned, Kechiche had been free to adapt her book as he saw fit. But she thought the sex scenes left something to be, er, desired (the below translated from French):

I don’t know the sources of information for the director and the actresses (who are all straight, unless proven otherwise) and I was never consulted upstream. Maybe there was someone there to awkwardly imitate the possible positions with their hands, and/or to show them some porn of so-called “lesbians” (unfortunately it’s hardly ever actually for a lesbian audience). Because — except for a few passages — that is all that it brings to my mind: a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and made me feel very ill at ease.

Here we have an objection that is less about the quality of lighting or the length of a shot than it is about elementary mechanics. It’s pretty inarguable that lesbians have a stronger sense of how lesbian sex happens than, say, a straight guy. Which really brings home the idea that, yes, life experience can make a difference in your artistic frame. It can be overcome by research, but then a lot of artists are either too lazy to do research or have self-justified that research interferes with their creative process. And as long as that’s true the only remedy for this sort of thing will be to get some real lesbians in the mix, directing films. I, for one, can’t see how that would be a bad thing.

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