Blue is the Warmest Color deals perfectly with falling in love

Criticism of Kechiche’s ‘male gaze’ is overblown


Adèle Exarchopoulos (left) and Léa Seydoux in 'Blue is the Warmest Colour'

Last night I saw Blue is the Warmest Color—the Titanic-length French film about young lesbian love that won this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Blue Angel, the film tells the story of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a sexually confused high-school student, and Emma (Léa Seydoux), an older art student with blue hair. The two meet by chance, fall in love, eat spaghetti, and engage in approximately seven minutes of on-screen tribadism. It’s one of best movies I have ever seen, not because of its graphic sexual content, but because it deals perfectly with the combined terror and joy inherent in falling in love for the first time with someone of the same sex.

Yet many critics have taken issue with the movie’s full frontal elements, labeling its now infamous sex scenes as voyeuristic and unrealistic. Displeased with the adaptation, Julie Maroh described director Abdellatif Kechiche’s treatment of the story’s love scene between Adèle and Emma as “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.” Michelle Juergen, writing for Policy Mic criticized the film’s male gaze. “Kechiche wanted to tell a raw, honest, and beautiful story of a couple,” writes Jeurgen, “but without removing his hetero, male perspective, he greatly hindered the depths the film could have achieved.”

The sex scenes are gratuitous—I’ll give them that. But they are also undoubtedly a blessing to lesbian couples everywhere. Maybe now that straight people have seen in great detail what it is we do in bed, they’ll stop asking us about it at dinner parties. As to realism of the sex scenes? Most of of it looked real to me, but one has to ask, does real matter? All sex in the movies is unrealistic. Why would we expect lesbian sex to be treated any differently? And more importantly, why would we want it to be? Film, even in its more arty forms, is an escape mechanism. Would you go to a James Bond movie that took a realistic approach to espionage? (James Bond 24: Wiretapping Angela Merkel’s cell phone.) I didn’t think so.

In all seriousness though, Juergen and Maroh’s criticisms of the film’s racy scenes have less to do with the sex depicted therein and more to do with the person depicting it. Kechiche is a man, and if his actors’ recent accounts are true, he’s not a very nice one. (Both the film’s female stars described him as difficult and aggressive; Seydoux said she’d never work with him again). But Kechiche’s alleged jerk behaviour does not take away from the fact that he has created a masterpiece. Juergen argues that had the director “removed” his male, heterosexual perspective, the film would have reached greater depths. What I think she really means, however, is that the film would be perfectly acceptable in its current form if Kechiche were a woman.

From Miley Cyrus’ right to twerk, to Quentin Tarantino’s right to make Django Unchained, to Kechiche’s right to direct two women in bed, cultural criticism right now is obsessed with artistic license: “Great idea you’ve got there but you have nothing in common with your muse, so what gives you the right?” Had these artistic authority types gotten their way at the dawn of human civilization, we’d have no myths, no fairytales, and every movie ever made would look like something out of Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying. Write what you know is a guideline, not a rule.

The story truest to the lesbian experience I have ever read is called Little Expressionless Animals. It was written by a heterosexual man: David Foster Wallace. That fact doesn’t complicate my love of the story or poison it. It strengthens it. After all, if Foster Wallace, a straight man, can tell my story as a gay woman better than I can, then my story is universal. And if my story is universal, then I am not alone. The willingness and ability to speak in another person’s voice isn’t a sign of artistic presumptuousness or insensitivity. It’s a sign of compassion.

I’m not sure how compassionate Kechiche is, or if his choice to film naked female bodies writhing in unison for seven minutes straight will illuminate anything for anyone (although, to be honest, I can’t really complain either way). But his treatment of Adèle’s revelation that she likes girls—from the emptiness of her sexual encounter with a doting boyfriend, to her taunting at the hands of teenaged girls is flawless. In The New York Times recently, Manohla Dargis criticized much more than the film’s sex scenes. She likens Adèle’s “silent downward look” after a man at a party asks her what lesbian sex is like and whether or not she wants children as proof the “female body” is “on display” in Blue is the Warmest Color. Adele’s silence, in Dargis’ view, was an aesthetic choice, cementing woman as object and diminishing the film’s realism. Yet, for me, this was single handedly the most realistic scene in the movie.

I have employed that silent downward look more times than I can remember. For a lesbian, far more annoying than the boorish “hey baby, do you use toys?” guy is the painfully nice guy who couches his prying and perverted questions in politically correct terms. Questions like: “I hope I’m not off base here, but you really don’t look like a lesbian. Have you ever considered other options?” Or worse, “My aunt is gay. She’s so great. Just had a baby through a donor. Are you looking for a donor at the moment?” I encounter this same line of questioning at least once a week, and I’ve never seen it depicted so accurately in film. It was really nice and surprisingly moving to see a seemingly private annoyance of my own captured on the silver screen—even if it was through the “male gaze.”

In the end, there is one major criticism to be made about Blue is the Warmest Color and it’s not sexual. It’s thematic. Without divulging too much about the movie’s ending I’ll say this: its climax is borrowed more or less from every American TV drama that ever had a lesbian plot line. (Hint: a man enters the picture.) Far more radical than lesbian sex on screen it seems, is the notion that an attractive lesbian character in a movie can remain a lesbian for more than 45 minutes.


Blue is the Warmest Color deals perfectly with falling in love

  1. Bravo!

  2. Emma, about that ending. It is a clever subversion of the heteronormative formulaic romance. There are 3 men who each represent conformity. First is the assimilation in to the high school social structure. Second is shared profession and interests. Third is shared class and outsider status. She shares none of these with Emma. Each man sees Adele as the object of desire and approaches her in conversation. Each one is shown as less meaningful than the one before until there is nothing from Adele to the final one. Each is ultimately rejected and exits Adele’s story. We don’t see Adele voicing her rejections directly to the person but we see rejection has occurred. The final example, in the climax you talk of, is again Adele disinterested and a man showing interest and trying to connect through what the two people share. As soon as the man is taken away by a friend, we see Adele’s line of vision becomes Emma with Lise. Adele leaves without a word and never looks back. The man follows the right way. The director then purposefully upends cliché. The man stops, turns around and runs the wrong way. This is vital to understanding the ending. As a viewer, the assumption, before the man runs the wrong way, may be of a heteronormative ending despite Adele’s lack of interest. The director, by showing the reversal of course by the last man, is making it clear that while we all have objects of desire that does not mean we are the object of desire in return. Our fate is not to be with someone just because we desire them. Adele has two people she sexually desires in the film – a fellow female student and later Emma. She is ultimately rejected by both just as she rejects the men who desire her. At the end, she rejects the man in the most detached style possible – she does not note his existence the moment he exits the conversation. He is therefore clueless about her journey because she does not wish for him to be part of that journey. He is as powerless in the end to be with Adele as she is powerless in the end to be with Emma.

  3. Absolutely brilliant post. Thank you so much for your clear and concise write up. I loved the film and agree with everything you say in your review.

  4. I totally agree. I don’t see why these so-called feminists seem so hell bent on censoring anything that is beautiful to look at. I’m a woman, and a feminist, and a lesbian, and I loved this movie, especially the sex scene. It was raw and passionate and shocking – right up front for the whole world to see. Nothing at all to be ashamed of.

  5. Thank you for a review that I can finally agree with! I felt that the depiction of the emotions that Adele experienced were very accurate (including the sex scenes), and resonated with me and my story. A fantastic movie (the best I have seen) that deserves well thought out reviews.

  6. this review is spot on.

  7. So we get to have a film that glorifies homosexuality and everyone in the normal course of trying to win an evolutionary struggle will glorify the film. The director will do whatever he can to make the sex look awesome.

    So we can all celebrate subversion and the intentional attempt to win at evolution by convincing others that they shouldn’t have sex properly.

    And then we will have the scores of writers declaring that homosexual relationships are superior to heterosexual relationships for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter because the opposite side is not allowed to make any case. Such cases are declared as bigotry by definition.

    Congratulations people. We have a society filled with individuals who are powerless to fight this “subversion”. This isn’t really daring anymore. Its simply going in the only direction society allows.

  8. So many words are being written about this movie. We all know the wool is being pulled over the eyes of the viewers. Who really buys that the subject matter is that meaningful or deep? A bag of trash, and the straight up porn from an old male pervert knowing that adding love in the mix trying to make the audience believe he was interested in anything but the body parts. Example, any story on the planet can be told without closeups of body parts. Not buying it.

    • I agree. The sex scenes were gratuitous and not necessary for the story. It overshadowed other themes in the film and to underscore the point–the cinema I saw it in was full of dirty old men sitting alone. One with his hand on his pants as I got up to leave. I’m sure he was there to see to “combined terror and joy” of falling in love. Yeah, right.

      • So should all (and especially good looking) lesbians only be seen in burkas, and instead of f**king, should they hold long snoozy intellectual convos to show their love, just in case some old man finds himself titillated. What Puritanical/fundamentalist crap. According to this rationale, lesbianism can never be about SEX, only friendship and sensuality (at best). And the nauseating contention that only lesbians should direct movies about lesbians only ensures that their stories remain as niche and as obscure as possible.
        I am a lesbian and this film spoke to me. If you think you’re promoting feminism by ridiculing experiences such as mine, well then…I mean, talk about perverted.

  9. This movie is full of flaws and I can’t for the life of me understand why it won that award or why people like it.It had maybe a couple of charming aspects about it but that was lost during the 3 hour mostly boring scenes.
    None of the sex scenes were arousing erotic or even as good as porn.The sex scenes were boring & so erratic like they were in some kind of sex Olympics.The rest of the movie was mostly also boring,long shots of people eating spagetti 3times people eat spagget iin a country that is known for its cuisine.
    Long boring shots of Adelle teaching class/showering ect.A standard romantic storyline aside for the fact that they are lesbians.A screaming match when they break up with bad dialogue.
    The only interesting part of the movie is that it was in French & took place in France & it was about a lesbian couple but other then that it was BORING & certainly not worth the almost 3 hours I sat watching it.
    Also just so you knhow this is coming from a person who was really eager & excited about seeing this fim & I was mostly dissaponted.I reccomend to anybody who is curiose to see it go discount Tuesday or wait until its in the cheaper thaatres so as not to waste your money.

  10. Oh I forgot to mention ,the real problem with this movie is that its a bad movie not the sex scenes although they were bad as well and not because they were graphic in fact I didn’t think they were graphic just badly done & boring.I don’ tknow if you are the movie critic for this magazine but if you are you don’t know anyhting about what makes a good movie.

  11. This highlighted my night honestly. Very gratifying to hear a woman, not only in this review but in the comments as well, describe the film the way I’ve been thinking since it premiered at Cannes. As a man, I really appreciate what you’ve said in this review. I’ve talked with many people about the subjects brought up in the narrative and my gender usually always constitutes a negating factor to my opinion. You’ve taken an open minded look at this film, and as someone who also did so, regardless of my gender, I appreciate seeing someone who involves themselves within the film regardless of the gender of the director, but because of the aesthetic of the director. Any article like this is progressive in my opinion.

  12. So much focus on whether or not the sex scenes were overdone. (They were). What about the hackneyed story told so many times before in other films? What about the totally unrealistic response of Adele’s otherwise intellectual and erudite girlfriends who act like she has the plague when they find out she is a lesbian? The sub Godard French posing with every character having a fag hanging out of their mouth (fag = cigarette, by the way). A film with grand pretensions, but really, very superficial and unoriginal, but made notorious because of steamy sex scenes. Very disappointing.

  13. I am so late on this…I know. But it is nice to see there is another lesbian out there who sows not think this movie is some kind of “hate crime”. I adored it myself, mainly because of Adele Ex’s performance, but I also liked what the director did with it.

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