Adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Le bleu est une couleur chaude (recently translated into English), Blue Is the Warmest Color arrives into theaters in the United States today, October 25, and brings with it much critical acclaim—as well as controversy. This year’s winner of Cannes’s Palme d’Or, the film presents a nearly three hour, cinematic portrait of a young woman’s sexual awakening through her relationship with both men and women.
Adèle Exarchopoulos is exquisite as Adèle, a 15-year-old girl who approaches life with careful, yet passionate, contemplation. She loves to read, yet is noticeably dispossessed of this intellectual fervor in school; her eyes are always in search of something, or someone, other than what is in front of her. The camera rarely leaves Adèle’s face, and remains close as if in attempt to give us insight into her mind through her glassy gaze. Following her eyes, the audience witnesses the first moment she sees Emma (Léa Seydoux), a tomboi with short, blue hair, and she becomes discombobulated, transfixed—she stares at Emma until the latter locks sights with her. That night in bed, in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, Adèle fantasizes about Emma, whose blue hair saturates Adèle’s mind and body, as she masturbates; the totality of this saturation expressed in the scene through lighting, and through subtle elements, like the blue pattern on Adèle’s pillow.
Shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend, Adèle sneaks into a gay club and meets Emma in person, both equally fascinated with the other. The film then documents Adèle’s psychological and emotional maturation through her sexual awakening with Emma. Her affairs with men, which envelope her relationship with Emma, do not evoke that passionate intensity within her. Most of the film’s hype has been around their sex scenes—the first one, in particular, which rounds out to about six minutes on screen. (This is contrary to reports of anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes of sex.) Maroh, while acknowledging the film is its own entity outside the novel, conveyed her dissatisfaction with the sex scenes:
I don’t know the sources of information for the director and the actresses (who are all straight, unless proven otherwise) and I was never consulted upstream. Maybe there was someone there to awkwardly imitate the possible positions with their hands, and/or to show them some porn of so-called “lesbians” (unfortunately it’s hardly ever actually for a lesbian audience). Because—except for a few passages—this is all that it brings to my mind: 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. Especially when, in the middle of a movie theater, everyone was giggling. 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. And among the only people we didn’t hear giggling were the potential guys too busy feasting their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on screen.
I totally get Kechiche’s will to film pleasure. The way he filmed these scenes is to me directly related to another scene, in which several characters talk about the myth of the feminine orgasm, as…mystic and far superior to the masculine one. But here we go, to sacralize once more womanhood in such ways. I find it dangerous.
As a feminist and lesbian spectator, I can not endorse the direction Kechiche took on these matters.
I did not find these scenes clinical, but I do agree that there was a porn-ish element to them, in that most of the sex involved some variegation of scissoring, with Kechiche apparently partial to the reverse cowgirl position. In lesbian culture, scissoring is (unfortunately) mocked as something that only occurs in “lesbian” porn—porn, that is, not made for or by lesbians or queer women but primarily for (and directed by) men. Monika Bartyzel, in a review for The Week, perhaps said it best: Blue is “a film that specifically converts a strong, human story about lesbian love into a voyeuristic and theoretical treatment of lesbian love that both sexualizes and undermines the sexuality Maroh carefully relayed in her graphic novel.”
Yet this is not the reason why this film does not read as lesbian to me. I was baffled by online reactions contending that Blue is not a lesbian film. But this is accurate: Blue is a cinematic bildungsroman of a young French woman. The plot arc and the emotional arc are both focused on Adèle. The correlative plot and emotional conflict emerges from the relationship itself, not with whom the relationship is with—Adèle’s first experience of being so completely in love, with all its accompanied lust, is the site of the film’s exploration.
“Lesbian” is a cultural (and political) identity. Blue is not concerned with identity, but with the body and its affectations—not with the external, but the internal. The film is an acute depiction into life beyond identity, and beyond words. “[U]sing cinema to try to access sensations beyond his comprehension,” is how Eric Hynes, at the New York Times, describes Kechiche’s method: “I’m not trying to explain a woman by showing how she feels pleasure,” [Kechiche] said. “I’m just trying to understand.”