Sex and Blue is the Warmest Color
Since its inaugural showing at the Cannes Film Festival this year, taking the top prize, Palme d’Or, the media conversation surrounding Blue is the Warmest Color continues to simmer. The focus of the conversation about the lesbian-themed, French film is overwhelmingly about the graphic sex scenes between the two women. As writer, Ashton Cooper over at Jezebel noted this past weekend, in the media reporting on Blue is the Warmest Color, plenty of commentary exists from male critics, but few female, especially, queer female voices. So, to add to the growing number of queer discussions about this lesbian-filled film, I add my two cents.
Blue is the Warmest Color follows teenage Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) who realizes she has feelings for another woman, blue-haired art student, Emma (Léa Seydoux). Grappling with this realization, Adele tries to avoid her feelings before inevitably wandering into a lesbian bar where she encounters Emma again. The pair have immediate chemistry, and from here, the film tells an honest story about the highs and lows of Emma and Adele’s epic love, which becomes more complicated than a happily-ever-after.
In the world of lesbianism, I consider myself pretty liberal. I feel no need to barricade myself in a desolate cabin in the woods screaming, “It’s womyn with a ‘Y’!” and things like Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” don’t ruffle my feathers. I mention this because a lot of disagreement exists within the queer community on what constitutes acceptable representation, and Blue is the Warmest Color has incited quite the debate. The fact that a man, Abdellatif Kechiche, directs Blue is the Warmest Color and the leading ladies are both straight women, is enough for many to write the attempt off completely. I would argue this portrayal of lesbian sex falls short based on a lack of emotional connection and drawing from porn or stereotypes instead of the real experiences of queer women to inform the sex sequences.
Though theoretically by definition, there are not men involved, mainstream lesbian porn is primarily produced by men and for men. This becomes especially obvious when the women have long acrylic nails, and are peering over the other woman’s vagina or breast to look into the camera, lustily inviting in the male gaze. In its defense, Blue is the Warmest Color avoids having Adele and Emma focus on anything other than each other during the sex scenes. Kechiche’s intent was to show the passion these two women had for each other, not exploit their sexuality. He may have fallen short, but the attempt does not feel merely titillating to make a film about lesbians more appealing to male viewers. What Blue is the Warmest Color shares with porn; however, is an absence of a connection between the two women beyond the physical.
The lack of emotion between Emma and Adele makes the sex sequences seem off, uncomfortable and disingenuous. The two women’s actions feel more clinical than passionate, like they are checking off from a list of actions people conceive lesbian sex to consist of; oral sex, fingering from various angles, 69ing, scissoring and so on.
As Julie Maroh, creator of the graphic novel the film is based on, now famously stated, “It appears to me that this was what was missing on the set: lesbians.” This statement rings true. Without enough involvement of real women who have sexual experience with other women, all the filmmakers and actors have to go off of are mainstream stereotypes of lesbian sex. The scenes were bound to garner a lot of attention because of their explicit nature, but refreshingly, not because they are outright offensive. There was an effort made here to show something real. It just didn’t quite work.
The extreme strength of this film is it does not make a big deal about the sexuality of the protagonists. In an evolving body of work surrounding the LGBT community, Blue is the Warmest Color strives to tell a realistic, sometimes uncomfortable, story about imperfect people who fall in love, screw up and grow in different directions.
In reality, Adele and Emma could have been any combination of genders, and the story would feel just as realistic. These representations, which humanize the romantic experiences of the LGBT community, are the most powerful narratives to affect change. You don’t need to be an LGBT person to understand Adele’s hurt as Emma looks adoringly at another woman, or Emma’s frustration at Adele’s inability to be faithful; you just need to be human.
Despite the seemingly good intention of the film, the sex scenes are not the only problematic elements of Blue is the Warmest Color. Particularly, Kechiche’s cinematography choices, which focus inappropriately on Adele’s body parts, have been called to attention by film critic, Manohla Dargis at The New York Times. Regardless, Blue is the Warmest Color continues to be an important facilitator of discussion surrounding the representation of lesbians, sex and the female body in film.
But most importantly, once the conversation about the sex wears out, Blue is the Warmest Color simply tells a realistic love story, a bit of a messy one. The fact the main characters are lesbians is an added bonus.