PRINT October 2013


Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color

Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue Is the Warmest Color, 2013, digital video, color, sound, 179 minutes. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux).

A HIGH-WATER MARK in cinematic lesberation or, as a New York Times headline put it, a “slutty impostor”? Examining the reception of Abdellatif Kechiche’s fifth feature, Blue Is the Warmest Color—a sexually explicit but often fatuous tale of a sapphic sentimental education—since its premiere in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, has proven more stimulating than the film itself.

In the first of the director’s many interventions in this loose adaptation, cowritten by Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix, of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Le Bleu est une couleur chaude (2010), he changes the name of the original’s teenage protagonist, Clémentine, to match that of the actress who plays her: Adèle Exarchopoulos, a little-known nineteen-year-old performer whose mien, particularly her ripe, full mouth, evokes both Brigitte Bardot and Godard regular Anne Wiazemsky. (The film’s original title is La Vie d’Adèle—Chapitre 1 & 2.)

That bouche appears incapable of ever fully closing. Adèle is frequently shown, often in extreme close-up, with her mouth agape: while asleep; during classroom discussions of Marivaux’s Life of Marianne (Adèle and her fellow Lille high-school juniors talk of “predestination” and “love at first sight,” just one example of Kechiche’s blunt telegraphing); and after sex with a male classmate, for whom she feels little physical attraction. This constantly ajar orifice suggests, again too obviously, Adèle’s ravenous hunger—she slurps down multiple plates of spaghetti Bolognese—and carnality, her sexual curiosity piqued when she first sees Emma (LéaSeydoux), a slightly older, soft-butch, turquoise-haired beaux-arts university student, who cruises her back.

After reencountering each other at a dyke club—Adèle has ended up there after tiring of the boy bar a gay male friend has taken her to; maybe it was the tattooed old queen who slurs, “Love has no gender. Take whoever loves you,” who scared her off—the teenager later asks her crush about her own appetites: “When was the first time you tasted a girl?” Shortly after this besotting fact-finding mission—one of the film’s best scenes—and with Emma’s previously mentioned girlfriend mysteriously eliminated from the plot, the two rapaciously devour each other, kissing, licking, sucking, fingering, scissoring, ass-slapping, sixty-nining, and moaning.

Adèle and Emma’s three scenes of hot lez lust, which add up to roughly ten minutes of screen time in a three-hour-long film, were the focal point of nearly every review, most of them rapturous, after the film’s Cannes debut. This breathless dispatch from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw typifies the praise: “The extended sex scenes have an explicitness and candour which can only be called magnificent; in fact they make the sex in famous movies like, say, Last Tango in Paris look supercilious and dated.” Yet in a prominent dissent, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times lambasted the director, writing that “the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else,” later adding that he “seems so unaware or maybe just uninterested in the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades.” Most damning were comments that Maroh posted on her blog the day after Blue won the Palme d’Or. “It appears to me that this was what was missing on the set: lesbians,” the twenty-seven-year-old author observed, calling Adèle and Emma’s intimate scenes “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. . . . As a feminist and lesbian spectator, I cannot endorse the direction Kechiche took on these matters.”

Though I, another feminist and lesbian spectator, cannot entirely endorse these scenes, either—they strike me more as athletic endurance tests than expressions of pure erotic abandon—I also feel compelled to defend them. As Patricia White, a professor at Swarthmore, argues in her brilliant book Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (1999), “feminist film theory has been unable to envision women who looked at women with desire”; it is this persistent blind spot that Dargis’s critique seems not to consider. And though Maroh, crucially, makes sure to stress that she is expressing only her opinion and is “looking forward to hearing what other women will think about [the film],” her suggestion that the director’s and lead actresses’ (presumed) heterosexuality automatically makes the sex scenes inauthentic and “pornographic” is queer politicking at its most reductive.

What is indefensible, or at least risible, about Blue Is the Warmest Color, though, is what happens when Adèle and Emma aren’t in bed. The class differences—and attendant career ambitions—that mark and ultimately sunder Adèle, who is training to be a nursery-school teacher, and Emma, fiercely determined to land her first painting exhibition, are highlighted in a staggeringly trite party scene. The younger lover, who in dutiful wifey mode has prepared vats of her signature pasta, uncomprehendingly listens as Emma argues heatedly with an art-historian friend about the relative merits of Klimt and Schiele. More egregious banalities, which we are meant to ponder seriously, emerge from Lille’s most prominent gallerist, a man who yaps on about the “mystical” nature of female orgasm and insists that “art by women never tackles female pleasure.” Kechiche tackles female pleasure, but he has no art to show for it.

Blue Is the Warmest Color, which makes its US premiere at the New York Film Festival this month, arrives in theaters on October 25 in New York and Los Angeles.

Melissa Anderson is a film critic based in New York.