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.