Convincingly queer: Léa Seydoux in “Blue is the Warmest Color”

There’s a moment toward the end of award-winning French film Blue is the Warmest Color when actress Léa Seydoux runs her fingers through her short blonde hair. She rakes it from forehead to crown. Ducking her head, she pauses to peer up at her love interest, then cuts her eyes away. Her hand travels back toward her face then, her hair artfully disheveled in its wake. It’s the sort of arresting moment anyone who’s ever been in love with a dyke recognizes. Not just recognizes, craves. It’s why all the bluster is worth it.  It’s why you show up.

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This is not the sort of moment most critics have chosen to highlight. Rather, the movie’s buzz has centered around The SEX! Comprising 20 minutes of the three hour film, the sex scenes’ duration and specificity earned Blue an NC-17 rating. However, the true purpose of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s astutely observed coming of age story is to align the audience with Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) as she transitions into an adulthood rich with discovery, emotional entanglements, interpersonal thrills and disappointments. Though Kechiche has been critiqued for shots which linger on Exarchopoulos’s ass, the sex he depicts is not meant to arouse but rather to inform. This is sex as character development, sex which, according to New Yorker film critic Richard Brody, exceeds our expectations of cinematic sex.

“Most sex scenes in movies are index-card signifiers,” Brody writes, “giving visual evidence of the fact that the characters have sex at a given point in the story but not actually showing much of significance about the sexual relationship.” In Blue, no long-nailed porn princesses touch tongues, instead two fully realized female lovers find physical outlet for their mutual passion.

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Yet the lesbian sex depicted in Blue is hardly the gayest thing about the award-winning indie film. That honor goes to Seydoux who portrays Emma, the film’s blue-haired December to nubile Adele’s May. So accurate and authoritative is Seydoux in her characterization that Blue’s leads could have bundled up in thick wool sweaters and played a nice wholesome game of Parcheesi and the film would have been no less,well, gay.

A French actress, Seydoux has modeled for American Apparel and appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. In most online pictorials she appears liquid-eyed and lost; flowing hair grazes bare shoulders—she’s not just feminine, she’s straight. Now, one would hope a skilled actor could portray just about anyone of any type. Still, it’s easy for an actress to buzz her hair and aim her lips at the closest girl, but creating a character who truly reads as a capitol D Dyke is a more difficult feat.

Obviously lesbians are all lovely, intricate snowflakes. A femme is no less valid than a butch who is no less real than an androgynous gal. However, there’s a certain type of lesbian that film and television tend not to fully capture. She’s the cocksure cigarette-smoker, the one with the understated swagger whose bravado compels by virtue of what it’s cultivated to hide: that unique fragility born of female masculinity. Is butch the right word for Emma? Is boi? Either one might suffice but to me she’s a dyke. She’s the sum of a thousand different gestures, expressions and reactions, each of which alone might be meaningless, but when you add them up you know she doesn’t just play for your team, she’s the fucking captain.

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Piecing together comments Seydoux has made about her character (“[Emma’s not] massive but she’s heavier than me. I was carrying that because I’m supposed to play the man.”) and how she’s explained her fluctuating self-image (“there have been moments where I’ve found myself pretty and sexy, but there are times when I find myself much less beautiful–a bit of a lesbian, you could say.”), one comes away unclear as to what Seydoux understands about playing a dyke. Though she’s been criticized for both comments, they seem to allude to small aspects of otherness which, however clumsily put, may have played into her acting choices. In truth, Emma’s role in her relationship with Adele is more traditionally masculine, and her beauty more blunt than graceful. Maybe that’s what Seydoux meant to imply.

No matter what comes out of Seydoux’s mouth, that hand-in-the-hair moment is representative of her consistent ability to embody a role rife with sub-culturally relevant signifiers, crucial in combination. Regardless of (or perhaps amazing in light of) Seydoux’s limited ability to describe the iconic dykiness of the character she so compellingly inhabits, with Blue, Seydoux joins the ranks of women like Ally Sheedy in High Art; straight but astute and observant enough to capture a type evanescent yet loaded with subcultural meaning, a type rarely seen on screen.

For another take on the film, read our review here.

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