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.
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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.”