Are the sex scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color too long? Are they an appropriation of lesbian sexuality for the viewing pleasure of the general public?
In a blog post written in May, Julie Maroh, who authored the graphic novel on which the film is based, described the film as as a “brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex.” In addition, Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, who play the lovers at the center of the story, accused the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, of mistreatment during filming, when (among other things) he reputedly exhorted the exhausted actresses, “Hit her! . . . Lick her snot!” Mr. Kechiche has responded by insisting that the actresses have no idea what mistreatment is, compared to working class French Arabs such as himself who are trying to make their way in the world.
In fact, the film is brilliant portrayal of first love—at least for the teenage Adele, if not for the more sophisticated art student, Emma—in which the lovers discover in each other a new world incarnate. Their love-making extends beyond pleasure to a voracious (Adele’s word) impulse to consume, incorporate, and merge with each other. If it becomes frantic and mechanical, this is what sex is like after the third or fourth orgasm: a kind of delirious agony.
Consciously or not, Mr. Kechiche revisits ground previously laid out by feminist filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman and Jane Campion, who in the films Je, tu, il, elle and Sweetie, for example, dispassionately explore female orality, the drive that leads a character to eat a whole bag of sugar with her fingers or ingest her sister’s collection of tiny porcelain horses. (In literature, see Rita Mae Brown’s self-explanatory Rubyfruit Jungle and Jewelle Gomez’ The Gilda Stories, about an admirable band of lesbian vampires.)
This is a valid and important theme, but Blue remains an ethical tangle. Mr. Kechiche’s claim that the film is about the class divisions he himself has encountered is undercut by his reputed treatment of Ms. Exarchopoulos, the blameless young actress who plays his uncultured heroine, Adele. She had it just as rough as the accomplished Ms. Seydoux, whom Mr. Kechiche has excoriated for the family connections to which he attributes her success.
And Mr. Kechiche sells his heroine short. As a student, Adele is a passionate reader who lectures her boyfriend, a math whiz, on the fascinations of La Princesse de Cleves. After she moves in with Emma, her interests narrow to cooking and sex. Yes, she becomes a dedicated school teacher, but she loses her intellectual curiosity and independence, and Emma cannot really be blamed for growing bored.
In spite of himself, Mr. Kechiche makes the charismatic and ambitious Emma a complex character and not a stock figure of privileged snobbery (or perhaps it is Ms. Seydoux who accomplishes this feat). When Emma tires of Adele, she forces the girl into someone else’s arms for solace, and then uses the infidelity as an excuse for breaking up. It is a cowardly way to end an affair, but a very human one. Perhaps it is even a kindness that only years later does Emma admit to Adele that she doesn’t love her anymore.
Whatever else his mistakes, Mr. Kechiche should not be criticized for being a man who made a film about lesbians—that time is past. It is a beautiful film, whose palette—from Emma’s hair to Adele’s dresses to the very woodwork—never palls. Mr. Kechiche may be through with Ms. Seydoux, but blue is still the coolest color.