Despite Its Graphic Sex, ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ Leaves Much to Be Desired

'Blue Is the Warmest Color' Rearview:

REARVIEW: The marathon sex scenes violate the sense of realism in Abdellatif Kechiche's controversial film.

Back in college, a group of graduate students at the U. of Texas conducted an experiment in which they tried to create a pornographic movie that would appeal to women. They began by polling women to see why the graphic, genital-oriented videos that so excited male viewers didn’t hold the same appeal for them, asking what they felt was missing from the copious amount of porn targeted at men. Then, they took that research and made their own video, which presented unsimulated sex in a completely different light. The resulting video, designed to arouse, emphasized emotional connection between the partners and sacrificed closeup images of “private parts” for an exciting feeling of intimacy altogether absent from most pornography.

I mention this because critics of “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the controversial French film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, have accused its long, graphic sex scenes of being pornographic, thereby opening a deep and tiresome debate around the definition of the word “pornographic,” which, in legal terms at least, has to do with the material’s intent to sexually excite viewers, community standards of decency and whether it serves any redeeming cultural value. By contrast, I believe the blue-movie scenes in “Blue” directly contribute to the story — the romantic awakening and first significant heartbreak of a 15-year-old girl experiencing her first same-sex attraction. I do not, however, believe it to be a very good movie.

“Blue Is the Warmest Color” is a lesbian love story directed by a straight man, and it shows. Reports of the film’s production have revealed that director Abdellatif Kechiche was obsessed with his leading lady, Adele Exarchopoulos, and his method of telling the story essentially involved stalking her with his camera at all times. No moment was too mundane, to the extent that he would follow her into the bathroom to observe her vomiting. Most of the film is told in relatively tight closeup on the actress’ face while she eats, dreams, speaks, cries — with far too much attention devoted to watching her eat and speak at the same time (a stomach-churning prospect, when viewed on the largest screen at the Cannes Film Festival, at least). Inspired by a graphic novel (from which its badly translated English title derives), the film was originally released as “La Vie d’Adele: Chapitre 1 & 2,” or “The Life of Adele: Chapters 1 & 2” — a choice that reflects Kechiche’s decision to rename the character after its star, his muse.

Now here’s where things get really creepy. Kechiche also makes the bold and potentially radical choice of accompanying the character in the bedroom for her first same-sex sexual encounter with the older and more experienced blue-haired crush Emma (Lea Seydoux). This is a beautiful and essential part of Adele’s personal journey, and I applaud the film for not shying away from depicting their lovemaking. But he goes about it in a dishonest and, frankly, unseemly manner. For no good reason, the film’s aesthetic makes a 180-degree turn during these scenes. Where Kechiche’s camera otherwise proves to be entirely resistant to falsely glamorizing his protagonist (it gets right up in her face to observe snot running down her face or the natural physical imperfections of her skin), we suddenly find him interfering with the naturalistic style the film so strictly observes throughout.

These sex scenes, performed by straight actors (nothing wrong with that — acting is about pretending in the direction of plausibility) in what were reportedly marathon closed-set sessions with their director, bear almost no resemblance to reality. They certainly don’t reflect the fumbling awkwardness witnessed between Adele and her boyfriend earlier in the film. Instead, Kechiche shows Adele and Emma having what I call “porn sex” — which is to say, a fantasy-oriented encounter designed to excite male viewers, bearing little connection to the rigorous naturalism seen throughout the rest of the film. The camera takes a step back from the characters’ faces in order to better ogle the characters’ bodies, while the editing (which can spend 11 minutes on a backyard dinner party in which French hipsters talk with their mouths full of bolognese) encourages the impression that the couple are experimenting with every possible sexual position, making Adele’s virgin experience equivalent to that of a seasoned pro.

Kechiche’s objectifying gaze better served his previous — and equally provocative — film, “Black Venus,” which pays nearly as much time to actress Yahima Torres’s backside as “Blue” does to Exarchopolous’ face. But unlike the director’s latest, “Black Venus” (which runs a similarly arduous 166 minutes) is directly engaged with the idea of spectatorship and objectification, being the story of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus,” a voluptuous African woman brought to Europe and paraded around circus tents and society parlors like a sideshow attraction. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis effectively killed the film’s chances at U.S. distribution by dismissing it with a single sentence, in which she singled out “Kechiche’s bad filmmaking and exploitative camerawork” — though the latter is effectively the point of “Black Venus” (which features a long sequence in which scientists negotiate permission to make a plaster cast of her genitals). By supplying an unflinching re-creation of these “grotesque” acts, Kechiche forces contemporary audiences to examine the contradictory appeal and degradation of such inhuman treatment. Like “12 Years a Slave,” “Black Venus” raises difficult and uncomfortable questions about racial dynamics in our not-distant-enough cultural legacy. In contrast with “Blue,” however, the visuals are never offered up for sexual excitement.

Obviously, I am not a lesbian, so it’s possible that I’m not clued in to some key bit of realism that the rest of the film so ruthlessly delivers. That’s why I’m so gratified that Posture, a queer arts mag, invited lesbian audiences to dissect and analyze these scenes, revealing them to be every bit as fraudulent as I had suspected. But aren’t all movie sex scenes phony, you ask? Sure, but they don’t occur in the midst of a film that, loosely sprawled across three long hours, so earnestly commits to capturing a realistic sense of a character’s experience, thereby rupturing the entire facade. Contrast the erotic scenes with the Wachowskis’ 1996 lesbian thriller “Bound” (which emphasizes the role of lips, hands and water-related imagery, rather than simply parading naked female flesh before the eyes of the straight male audience), or the importance of intimacy over visuals in the grad students’ female-targeted porn experiment, and it becomes clear that Kechiche allowed his baser instincts to win out in “Blue.”

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  1. As a bisexual female I pretty much agree with the author of this article. I so appreciated the pangs of first love and the deep wounding that goes along with it however I found the sex scenes very tedious and difficult to stay involved with. I never found them erotic and were so divorced from my own first sexual experience with a woman I couldn’t take them at all seriously. It was as if the director was involved and I actually found myself looking for a camera to emerge. In fact I found the love-making,
    if you could call it that, quite boring and staged.

  2. I completely disagree with Debruge’s analysis of the scene. While there were certainly examples of an objectifying male gaze in the film (as well as explicit and implicit dialogue about the subject), the seven minute sex scene was not an example of it. As with the rest of the film, it was very expressive and physical, and it really helped dimensionalize the characters and their relationship.
    As several people have pointed out, the sex shown in the scene is very “geometric” and eager, but I see that as more of an expression of Adele, her physicality and the intense enthusiasm she expresses throughout her life than an attempt at titillation.

  3. montefuego says:

    One more thing. You say that the director is ‘obsessed with his leading lady.’ I would suggest that most directors are must at least be entranced with their leading lady, how else can they make a film fully celebrating her? And of course, Vertigo is one of the great films, as are many Hitchcock films. Are we throwing them in trash because Hitchcock was obsessed with his leading ladies?

  4. Jenny says:

    This article would have been just fine if the author didn’t link to that embarrassing Posture video. There are more queer reviews of this film out there than a few white hipster lesbians with a superiority complex spouting off about what they think constitutes as “””real lesbian sex.””” I don’t need them speaking for me and my experiences.

    Look, I’ve seen this film twice and I absolutely adore it. I have never had such a visceral reaction to a film as I did this one. I identify as a lesbian and I’m pretty sure I have seen every lesbian film ever made, even the many terrible ones. La Vie d’Adele is not a lesbian film. And reviewers who critique it as such and relegate it to the lesbian film genre just completely miss the point.

    There are definitely valuable critiques to be made of the sex scene, and the author touched on a few here. And I’m glad he mentioned the problems with Black Venus. I’m just tired of seeing reviews of the film be solely focused on 7 minutes of a 180 minute film that is the most in depth character study of a queer woman I have ever seen (even despite being written by a straight male). And any critique of objectification by the director needs to be mentioned simultaneously with acknowledgement that Kechiche expressly anticipates and addresses male gaze criticism within the film. Otherwise it’s honestly just lazy analysis.

    When I walked out of the theater, I barely even remember that that scene happened – all I could think about was the amazingly crafted and acted cafe scene where Lea and Adele gave everything they had and them some. In short, as Jodi Savitz from HuffPo recently wrote, “Why waste energy demeaning, debasing, or looking down on other people’s vision, experiences, or interpretations of lesbian sex, especially within the context of such a beautifully crafted film? Can we not simply appreciate Blue Is the Warmest Color for the brilliantly scripted, aesthetically meticulous, emotionally raw film that it is?”

  5. montefuego says:

    I wrote a reply comment that I thought was extremely well written. Why was it rejected?

  6. S. Tolbert says:

    I just watched that video. Which lesbian should I trust? One says scissoring does not exist. One says she does scissor, uses the same position Adele does in the film and has similar sex in real life. Maybe Peter can enlighten us why the latter’s opinion is worthless and the former’s is definitive proving his belief the sex scenes are fraudulent. Instead he comes across as a straight man thinking any sex between women that is animalistic is a male fantasy. Here is a read for Peter that may help enlighten him how unenlightened his comments really are. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jodi-savitz/blue-is-the-warmest-color-lesbian-sex_b_4258551.html

    • S. Tolbert says:

      P.S. Peter, I know you said you aren’t straight below. Just saying that is what your take comes across as. Most gay men know better than to buy into a video like that as definitive and to see how silly it is to begin with.

  7. jlinn says:

    Paul Fishbein is right that you used the legal definition of obscenity for pornography. Pornography is easy to define from what I have understood for years, is there penetration shown? Then it is pornographic. No penetration? Then it isn’t pornography. So Playboy would not be pornographic, Hustler would be.

  8. Good article but a factual error in the definition of “pornography.” When you mention legal definitions and cite “(the) material’s intent to sexually excite viewers, community standards of decency and whether it serves any redeeming cultural value,” you are citing the legal definition of obscenity, as described in the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Miller v. California. You are correct in inferring that pornography, as defined, sexually entices viewers. But the community standards comment and the redeeming cultural value refer to the three-prong definition of obscenity as cites by the Court.

  9. montefuego says:

    Maybe a straight man should not be allowed to review a film about lesbians, because how could he possibly understand their ‘truth?’ And of course no filmmaker should be allowed to make anything other than autobiography, since how can a young person understand an old person, a woman understand a man, and so on. Ibsen couldn’t possibly understand the women he wrote about, Virginia Wolf the men, and so on. And what about movies with Aliens or Zombies in them? How can any human fairly present their truth?
    I personally am tired of attacks on white men presenting their view of the world. Why not eliminate all the nudes that Rodin and Picassso did, too? Don’t you think they were turned on by their models? Of course they were.
    This is pure puritanism and retro sad/bad feminism, the old fashioned silly kind that parades as morality and is really no different than religious fanaticism.
    Please don’t join this witch hunt. We are hopefully artists as filmmakers, and our eroticism and desire for our muses is part of that process.

    • Peter Debruge says:

      For the record, I’m not a straight man. Abdellatif Kechiche is not a white man. And my argument is not that filmmakers can’t make films about people other than themselves. My problem is that this sprawling mess of a movie overturns its commitment to naturalism by injecting sex scenes that serve a straight male fantasy.

      • Dominique says:

        Seen from Europe, your statement “Abdellatif Kechiche is not a white man” is so absurd that it’s difficult to comment. It sounds very strange if not totally racist from here, but I suppose it’s different for you…
        Anyway, you are clearly a guy who khows who is white and who is not, who is a good lesbian, how she must behave (in a movie) and who is fraudulent. And you can tell what a director is allowed to embrace as a subject. Good point for an art reviewer…
        And if you’re gay, how can you be so affirmative about the “straight male fantasy”?

      • Wow says:

        Okay, interesting point…So, to drop the identity politics of the film, and, in extension, the way it’s being reviewed, I can definitely see how one might find naturalism missing from the sex scenes, but to me the film is NOT about naturalism at all. To me the film is about creating a kind of heightened or virtual reality, rooted in Adele’s experience. Everything is a projection or a fantasy to some extent. For example, the way the sun backlights the actors when they kiss on the bench–is that about naturalism or is that about the way that kiss feels? Similarly, when they have sex, isn’t it possible that Adele is both having sex and watching herself have sex? Isn’t that something we all experience from time to time in the sack? The last shot of the sex scene shows the couple entwined in a sixty nine, and the intensity of both the scene and the sex is playing out on Adele’s face. It’s as if she is both acknowledging the meaning of the sex as a character, and the impact of the scene as a viewer. I find that complicated and problematic and brilliant.

      • montefuego says:

        Hi Peter,
        Thanks for your reply. But look at the comments by ‘lesbian’ women below. I have little experience with gay male sex, but in terms of straight sex, there is a LOT of variation in how it occurs, and it doesn’t matter if 20 or 2000 people do it another way than a filmmaker shows it. Can someone really say, authoritatively, that no lesbians could possibly have the kind of sex portrayed in the movie? Do you really believe that?

        Somehow, you think that ‘straight male fantasy’ is a bad word. Why? Is gay male fantasy–think of countless gay photographers and artists– or lesbian fantasy a bad word? And shouldn’t fantasy be a legitimate realm of the filmmaker?

        As long as a filmmaker seeks their own truth, the work will have integrity. The overriding critical and popular acclaim for this movie bears that out. People recognize when they are shown something that reaches for truth. Yes, it may not be Manohla Dargis’ truth. So what. One day, she can make her own movie. This man made a movie that showed what he thought was true. That is what artists do. It is not their job to portray what other people see, or what the ‘majority’ expects, or what ‘average’ people do. They have to follow their muse.

        It may well be that his methods were not to the actress’ liking. I will be curious to see if she turns down her academy award if it is offered. She didn’t turn down the Cannes award. Maybe his methods, like those of James Cameron and countless other strong willed directors, are not to her liking, but achieved a result that would not have been obtained without those methods. That is a question for crew and actors who must decide whether to work on his next film, but not our realm as viewers and critics. The work is brilliant, the performances are brilliant, and I am sure, just as the Godfather was initially condemned by the Italian community and now has become one of it’s sources of greatest pride, that this film will eventually be embraced by the lesbian community.

        You are a great critic, but I think you were swayed by Manohla, who although she has written brilliantly, can be dead wrong, as she is in this case. Beware of ‘political correctness.’ It is fascism as surely as any other denial of free speech.

  10. Gijó says:

    Oh man you’re so wrong in so many aspects… First of all, don’t u find curious that all of those lesbians said almost exactly the same? I am, in fact, a lesbian, and although i found the main sex scene a bit too much, i must say i saw myself in there… Sure, the close-up thing. The close-up shots fade away when she meets Emma because the story is longer only about her. I agree that the sex scenes show to much but in my opinion it’s because emotion shows through out all of her body and not only her face when she’s having sex. Plus! It’s obvious that the awkwardness in the straight sex scene is intentional since she was not comfortable with Thomas as she was with Emma. And the movie is about Adèle so why not follow Adèle around?! I never felt so close to a character as I felt for her. Finally, if you think this is a men audience oriented movie, boy you really missed the point of it… Of course, this is just my opinion :)

  11. Wow says:

    I’m a lesbian who loved the film and thought the sex scenes very “realistic” (in the sense that I find them familiar from personal life, and in the sense that I believe in the passion between these characters). The fact that you had to resort to this prudish video from Posture, featuring 4 young lesbians, and used it to summarize ALL lesbian views of the film is just ludicrous.
    Having asserted that you can’t possibly know anything about “lesbian sex” (newsflash–it’s not rocketscience), you then go on to proclaim that “Bound” did it better? By emphasizing…”the role of lips, hands and water-related imagery”? I can’t IMAGINE the tastes of other minorities being reduced to something so banal and ridiculous.

    Shall I do a video called “Lesbians react to the veracity of this article” featuring 3 of my friends who agree with me?

    • Rajesh Kumar Singh says:

      The lesbian sex scenes look good, and clean like the high class lesbian porn. The filmmaker is certainly inspired by porn art. They are too clean to be an honest depiction of a lesbian or even heterosexual relationship. Julie Maroh,on whose graphic story the film is based, is a lesbian and this is what she had to say about the sex scenes, “The heteronormative laughed because they don’t understand it and find the scene ridiculous. The gay and queer people laughed because it’s not convincing, and found it ridiculous…As a feminist and lesbian spectator, I cannot endorse the direction Kechiche took on these matters. But I’m also looking forward to hearing what other women will think about it. This is simply my personal stance.”

      • Wow says:

        Yes, and I’m a feminist and lesbian woman who strongly DISAGREES with her statement. So, why is Maroh’s more definitive than mine or vice versa. The very fact that the disagreement exists, not just in this comments section, but in articles by other lesbian critics, proves only that SOME lesbians find it realistic, and SOME do not. Which means that they are realistic, over all. What else can possibly be concluded.

        The Variety author’s rather over the top assertion that the Posture video “reveal[ed] [the sex scenes] to be every bit as fraudulent as [he] had suspected” is like me saying that the Variety article revealed *all straight men* to be as insecure about their critical posturing as I had suspected.

        Additionally, the word “fraudulent” here really sticks out, for it betrays the author’s wish to find the “authentic” in this film. So my question is, are the sex scenes clinical, or are you looking at them with a clinical eye.

  12. niki says:

    the movie is tedious..and really boring…there must have been a 11 minute spaghetti eating scene too

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