Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

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When a comic book comes to the big screen these days, it’s not exactly a big surprise to experience the deafening roar as legions of fans—or even the comic’s creators—set about to bellyaching about the cinematic translation. In the same way that fans of novels or television programs have an emotional investment in the property, and therefore feel some sort of personal stake in its movie adaptation, comics fans…

On second thought, before I even finish that sentence, let’s make this comparison a little more honest. Comics fans aren’t exactly like fans of regular books or your average TV show. They’re far more… dedicated?…in offering their strongly worded praise or criticism when it comes to rating big-screen versions of their favorite material. Sure, “dedicated,” let’s go with that.

Maybe you weren’t even aware that the lesbian love story Blue Is the Warmest Color was based on a comic book. You couldn’t be blamed for missing that little detail in the sea of ink (print and digital) spilled so far about the controversial film from Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche, because nearly every discussion of the picture’s impressive artistry has been subsumed by talk of sex. And more talk of sex. And, afterwards, how the movie handles sex.

The sex scenes between the female leads, let’s not be absurd, are absolutely memorable and worth talking about; they’re a major component of the film, just as they are an important aspect of the graphic novel. (Yes, I waited until now to use the term “graphic novel,” to provide a relevant emphasis that connects the comic and the movie) As you might expect when it comes to any conversation about sex (be it straight or gay), the back-and-forth can turn from thoughtful to clumsy and silly in a big hurry.

Most readers won’t care very much at all about the public bickering that took place between the lead actresses and the director even as the film made a huge impression by taking the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. (To sum up: Both actresses made remarks about feeling like they were mistreated by Kechiche during production, especially during the sex scenes. The filmmaker took extensive umbrage. Finis.) You might have equally little interest in venturing into the weeds of cultural political correctness, sussing out exactly who is qualified to observe what about the movie’s content, or broader still, who might be qualified to dramatize what in terms of making the film in the first place. Yes, these conversations are going on now, too. They go something like this:

Heterosexual Critic: I think (fill-in-the-blank).

Gay Critic: Well, you’re straight, just like the filmmaker.

HC: So?

GC: So, your opinions are informed by bias and a lack of understanding because of your orientation.

HC: Aren’t yours?

And on it goes. Often these debates get judgmental and nasty. These arguments are a lot like the chatter that went on when Norman Jewison was first slated to direct Malcolm X. Whatever you might think of the movie Spike Lee ultimately made (I happen to love it), there was much philosophical litigation over whether or not a white filmmaker could, or should, be entrusted to make a big-screen biopic of the African-American icon. My own feelings about these kinds of discussions are that they can often be of some, but never all-encompassing, interest and value.

There will always and forever be “context” to anything artistic. One way of evaluating the success or import of a work, certainly, is to pay attention to just how much discussion of that context takes charge of the public’s discourse about it. By that measure alone, Blue Is The Warmest Color can be said to be one of the most important films of the year.

It’s certainly one of the best.

In just under three hours, the film tells a relatively simple coming-of-age story. At 15, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, rightly discussed now as a Best Actress contender) experiences her sexual awakening—which becomes confusing for her because she finds herself increasingly attracted to other girls, but there remain, still, those nagging expectations of peers and family members about what kind of love is “right” and what kind of love is “wrong.” Her brief affair with a smitten young man, of course, has to end badly. Dreams attempt to tell her what she is not yet willing to acknowledge—that she is gay, and that she fell in “love at first sight” with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired young woman with whom she exchanged a fleeting and tantalizing gaze one day while walking down the street.

As we might expect, they are eventually brought together, fall in love with each other, and, after the passage of some years when their love deepens and matures, experience a painful breakup. It’s a “first love” story; this is what must happen, after all. There is jealousy, mistrust, acts of both minor cruelty and unforgivable betrayal.

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Viewers will recognize themselves in both of the characters, though our point of primary identification is clearly meant to be with Adèle. One of them is more dependent on the other. One partner is more comfortable in their own skin. One is more experienced in relationships than the other. One grows suffocated. One cheats. One of them, confronted with the pain of separation, shrieks and wails and fears there is no going forward if the relationship truly ends. One is able to move on. The other isn’t. In relationships, you know which of these you’ve been, and which of them you are.

If it seems odd to make such a point of stressing that audiences would recognize themselves through the characters in a movie telling a story about first love, well, I’ll just cop to caving in to the recognition that this is still the society in which we live—where some heterosexual viewers yet need to be reassured that the fact that a movie deals primarily with a homosexual relationship is fashioned in such a way as to be “accessible” to them, too.

That accessibility continues to be talked about as a surprise, even among critics you’d think might approach the film with more sophistication. “It didn’t even matter to me that they were gay,” I overheard one writer say to another during a screening of the Josh Brolin-Kate Winslet movie Labor Day (about which I might have more to say in the future). That’s what you hear now. That sort of “praise” was spoken years ago with the release of Brokeback Mountain. In the more distant past, the same type of sentiment was expressed this way:

“It didn’t even matter to me that they were black.”

Well-intentioned, but kind of condescending all the same.

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The faithfulness question, as it relates to movie vs. comic, is a complex one; I read Julie Maroh’s 2010 book, originally titled Blue Angel, after having seen the film, and was a little shocked to see how much the basic narrative concept of the comic had been completely upended. And perhaps equally surprised to then see how much I understood why the filmmakers would make the change they did. Without directly spoiling anything for would-be readers of the novel or viewers of the film, the manner in which the basic conceit of the story is altered saved the film, in my opinion, from being slapped with the label of being a “gay Love Story.” I think I’ve now said enough on that score.

But, complementing that major departure are shots and sequences galore that do extraordinary justice to the comic. And here, I suppose, it might finally be time to address the sex scenes, which are as explicit as an NC-17 rating would lead you to expect, while falling just short of being classifiable as hardcore pornography. Adèle’s initiation into the world of real lovemaking (her tryst with a guy really doesn’t count, other than in the most clinical of ways) is presented in the film with a sequence that, for all its attention-getting length and intensity, feels curiously detached from the rest of the proceedings. In fact, subsequent scenes between Adèle and Emma in bed feel as if they could be neatly cut from the print, and you’d not lose much of substance, almost as if they were set up to be easily chopped out in some kind of crafty sop to the CleanFlicks crowd.

I’m not saying the scenes aren’t well done, or effective, or relevant; they are all three. The material is as rightfully included in the film as it is in the book. And, from the biased, and temporarily base, perspective of this straight male writer, there are certainly worse ways to spend one’s time in the theater than observing two such attractive actresses in the altogether. This puts me, I suppose, in the camp of viewers some lesbian critics/viewers claim to be the “real” intended audience for these scenes: straight guys aroused by hot, naked babes. Here, we get into Malcolm X territory, with audiences who share a specific identity with the subject matter arguing “their” lives have been unsuccessfully interpreted by outsiders.

Here’s one critique I read, from a lesbian viewer judging the authenticity of the onscreen sex:

“I thought it was hot at the beginning, and then it got ridiculous when they kept switching sex positions every ten seconds. It started to feel like an infomercial for a kitchen product, where they try and showcase all the things it can do.” (See the rest of the transcript, and the interesting video that went with it, here)

The problem with then attaching this “ridiculous” aspect of the scene to any indictment of a straight filmmaker for not “getting” lesbian sex is this: it’s in the editing. The scene doesn’t happen in “real time.” The actors aren’t “switching sex positions every ten seconds”; the montage is doing that. And montage has no sexual orientation, which is to say that—nearly every sex scene in the movies is equally as guilty of being overathletic and unrealistic.

A treasure of great movies is when we feel connected umbilically to the reality of the story and the characters, so it’s fair, I guess, to concede that for some viewers the film was meant to touch deeply (meaning: everyone), Blue Is the Warmest Color didn’t measure up in that regard. Even Julie Maroh, the author of the source material, has expressed some disappointment with the film. As is her absolute prerogative. Stephen King hated what Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining. That must be a tough go (especially since he still occasionally fumes about it), but as for me, I think Kubrick’s vision is a work of intimidating genius. Similarly, I felt the epic running time of Blue Is the Warmest Color fly by, so taken was I with the sumptuous cinematography, humor, and furious humanity on display.

This movie gets it right when it comes to a specific experience of love. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux deliver richly imagined performances, and if the film on hand comes across as a bit less melancholy than the book, both seem to end on notes of some resolved and wistful hope. To invoke a popular meme here, I will picture more romantically seasoned viewers wanting to add their own voiceover to the closing shot of Adèle in the film, just to whisper some words of comfort in her ear:

It gets better.

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  • Movie Fan

    Sex is sex. It’s not love. Love is an emotion, sex is an action. I am so bored with “hot” movies depicting simulated sex between two people who follow the tired old plot of “I love you, I hate you, I need you, now get lost while I go find myself in the arms of another, sorry you have health issues, bye.” What a snooze-a-thon!

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  • Carolyn Ferrante

    I think maybe the “attachment” of these two female lovers might have been exaggerated, over dramatized, by the director because of the controversial theme: two gay female teens.

  • emma stark

    Julie Maroh
    wanted to give visibility to the difficulties found by a teenager during the
    process of her sexual acceptance, and introduces a great love story. And of
    course, no one denies the need for the sex exists, but it is treated in a
    completely different way: aesthetically tasteful, respect and sensitivity. The
    problem is not with the explicit sex whenever it’s justified and well
    presented. The problem is when it was decided to show THIS WAY, through a
    lengthy scene with the sole purpose of creating curiosity and controversy.
    Which is the need of that? To provide a catalog of sexual positions to the
    audience? Those who have true sensitivity deeply despise this movie, so absurd
    and offensive as having made Ingrid Bergman fucking during 15 minutes in
    “Casablanca” (I don’t need to see it to understand their passion, so
    why with Adele and Emma we need to see seven orgasms to “understand”
    their desire? Does Kechiche believe we are idiots?)… “Blue is the
    warmest” is nothing more than commercial pornography disguised as
    hypocrite intensity. Many lesbians are very tired of hearing so many raves
    about this movie. If someone wants to shoot porn, well, do it, but don’t lie
    pretending it’s a different thing and don’t dare to disguise it as something
    else. It is clear that men heterosexual love lesbian theme and they feel
    attracted by it very much, but it’s so obvious to deny it later with such
    hypocrisy that we feel offended and outraged. The type who is excited watching
    sex between two women is as old as the world, and this movie feeds the same
    fantasy inside porn ones. This director has used lesbians through a film that
    is nothing more than a sexist and morbid appropriation.

    The true
    talent of a director is his ability to show something without having to resort
    to the easiest resources but suggesting them. The film would have won in
    strength and universal message, not stay in a concessive and superficiality
    plane. Of course, without these very provocative scenes would not have caused
    so much excitement in the review.

    We all know
    very well what has been the main attraction of this movie: the lesbian themes
    and sex scenes, without them nobody had talked about this film. Try to
    substitute one of the girls by a boy, the film would have passed completely
    unnoticed. Precisely people has talked so much about it for being two women, if
    we change one of them for a guy, what remains? A deep story or anything
    extraordinary? Here is no plot, no depth, no brilliant script, no powerful
    message… only sex. With excellent original story that he could have done,
    with a truly, wonderful and profound original work, Kechiche stayed in the
    easiest (why remove that scene, vital to the plot, expulsion from home by their
    parents? That scene itself that was necessary and not that other of the
    “scissors”), I find it very sad.

    In short:
    this is a perfect example of how to reduce a fantastic original material into
    shit and hypocritically want to sell it as art. With an unbelievable story he
    had in his hands, and a great plot to develop, Kechiche wasted footage in
    scissors and cunnilingus to the delight of critics and straight wankers.

    We, as
    lesbians, have struggled a lot to achieve respect from society since past years
    (and it still costs a lot) and suddenly we see exposed ourselves and visible
    only to promote male erotic myth. It’s very frustrating, because we feel as if
    everybody yell us when we express our disappoint: “You complain when you
    should applaud because we are showing lesbian life in an artistic and realistic
    way, you hysterical!!”. The same thing when women are “forced”
    to acknowledge receiving the compliment on the street they have not asked for.
    The day we see penises on screen with the same frequency that we see boobs we
    will be able to talk about equality… and until I don’t see a movie of the
    same director in which he recreates for 15 minutes in two men practicing
    “super justified” and ” super beautiful” anal sex, I will
    still continue thinking that he is nothing more a vulgar onanist who has just
    wanted to spead out his own fantasy and many men’s.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      I appreciate the substantial critique—although to the extent that it doesn’t seem to be written in a style that specifically responds to what I wrote about the movie, I confess to being a little suspicious that this screed you mount against the film (and the filmmakers) might be something you have at the ready to cut and paste in response to any write-up you deem to be offensively favorable to Blue Is the Warmest Color. That said, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt as I’m still interested enough to answer a couple of the points you make:

      It’s proper to respect anyone’s differing opinion about a movie, even (or especially) if that person’s opinion is informed by some kind of deeply personal offense—but you clearly go too far to say that “those who have true sensitivity deeply despise this movie.” Though, even your general point here seems a little muddled to me: First, you say you have no problem at all with explicit sex “wherever it’s justified and well-presented,” only the manner in which this film depicts it, and one breath later you make a broader argument by pointing out that the romance in “Casablanca” didn’t require an explicit sex scene at all to help us understand their passion, and then claim that depictions of graphic sex in this movie adaptation of a comic book (that also depicts graphic sex) is tantamount to porn, and highly offensive. Then, you make your objection quantifiable, and object to “seven” orgasms, as if that’s the magic number that becomes offensive. Would six have been OK? Three? One? Why?

      Are we really still having the argument about whether or not there exists some kind of objective arbiter of what is dramatically or aesthetically “justified,” or “tasteful,” or “well-presented”? Are we really? Allow me one colorful use of language when I say: that argument bores the hell out of me.

      You’re right to say that sex between two women is arousing to a lot of heterosexual men, as has been the case since, uhhhhh…forever. Know who else can be aroused by depictions of sex between two women? Of course you do, and it would be dishonest to argue otherwise.

      Next: The talent for a director to dramatize things through suggestion rather than explicitness is one talent of a director; not the only, and not the “true”
      talent. Your estimation of what constitutes ability in directing cinema could use some expansion, I’d suggest.

      We disagree on whether or not Kechiche’s dramatization of the sex in the film is something wholly apart from the way in which Julie Maroh depicted it on the page. As I indicated, I’ve read the book; to me, the script makes a much larger departure in matters of overall “plot” or “theme” by altering our perspective on the ultimate fate of Adele/Clementine. The characters’ first lovemaking scene is depicted extensively in the graphic novel—just as it is in the film. Having real naked people doing “real” naked things right in front of your eyes, I’ll suggest, makes the length and intensity of the event more visceral. Could it have been truncated in the film? Sure. That would be a choice.

      The other problem I have with the criticism of the sex scene in this movie is the implicit suggestion that there aren’t heterosexual scenes (in commercial or art films of a similar nature) that are routinely just as explicit, or taboo-breaking, or superfluous, or couched in fantasy. Most sex in movies bears little resemblance to how it transpires in real life. Perhaps when we see lesbian sex depicted with the same kind of regularity in mainstream movies (don’t hold your breath), this misapprehension
      will correct itself. You asked what would happen if we were to substitute a man
      in the scene; what would we have? We’d have any number of films that provoke
      audience discussion over their explicit nature (like Last Tango in Paris, or In the Realm of the Senses, or Blue Valentine, or Nymphomaniac, or…). Does there remain a double standard in terms of how much female nudity we see versus how much male nudity we see? Absolutely. But let’s also not pretend that the lingering shot of Hugh Jackman’s posterior added any dramatic juice to the latest “X-Men” film; and let’s not get in the business of denying how much gleeful chirping there’s been from female fans over the “money” shot of Ansel Elgort’s bare chest in The Fault in Our Stars.

      (Just start Googling “Ansel Elgort.” See what comes up first.)

      Lastly—we might be in agreement about this: The conversation about this movie definitely tends to be taken hostage by discussions of the sex scene(s). But here in your review, I think it’s fair to say you’re just as guilty of it; I think the movie has a lot more to offer than its erotic gymnastics, and preserves a good bit of Maroh’s book in
      the translation.

  • Paula

    I am a lesbian and seeing this film has given me a deep disgust and rejection of seeing a morbid man as Kechiche sadly reduces us to the same old thing: mere objects of male curiosity and porn. Here there is no depth, no brilliant script, no plot, no transcendent issue… nothing more than 15 minutes of ridiculous wild sex for men with the intention of selling the movie disguised as the biggest love history story ever told, but it’s only pornography. If two men have been the protagonists (or a man and a woman), the director would never have recreated in a sex scene between them like this and the movie would not have been so brightfull for critics. This movie offers nothing more than the curiosity of female homosexuality and especially the explicit images to prove it. If the couple had been heterosexual and if realistic sex had been treated in a more subtle manner, this movie never had been so praised. But of course, heterosexual critics liked it a lot and for that reason this film won Cannes. It sucks. What a shame.
    There was a great movie to be made from Julie Maroh’s thoughtful and ground-breaking graphic novel. Sadly, this film – despite all the critical acclaim – isn’t as good or real as it could have been. It’s very much a film for men and by men.
    Sorry, but I can’t admire nothing in a film with a male director abusing actresses and putting his pornish fantasies all over the screen and calling it art.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      The lead actresses’ ultimate assessment of their experience working on the movie is more nuanced than you suggest; any casual Googling on the subject of the film will reveal that. I will accord their accounts of working on the production, both positive and negative, with understandably greater merit than yours.

      Since your review of the movie, which, absent any more thoughtful critique for focusing entirely on the sex that constitutes some 10-15 minutes of a three-hour running time, boils down to: “This straight man made made porn and it sucks!”–is substantially identical to Emma Stark’s below, I will at this point not bother repeating myself, and refer you to the balance of my response to her.

  • Outraged

    The sooner this piece of filth fades into obscurity the better. The director is an abusing, childish pig. NO ONE has yet made a convincing argument for denying lesbian sex in the film are porn scenes. The lesbian who wrote the book hates it. I don’t really know what else needs to be said to be honest… But well, what did we expect from a straight Turkish man shooting a lesbian movie? A fetish porn film made by men foe men, nothing more.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      What type of argument would constitute something that would be “convincing” to you–since your criticism that no one has made such a persuasive case “yet” implies that such an argument is at least possible to you? “The lesbian who wrote the book”–Julie Maroh–indeed shares your definition of the showpiece sex scene as “porn,” but you, as others here have in this same thread, make the error of going too far when you present the author’s position towards this adaptation of her work as two-dimensionally as using the word “hate.” Her stance on the film is more balanced, and more mature, than you suggest.

      Here’s a link to an interview with Maroh that proves exactly my point, while also including her criticism of the Infamous Scene you’re talking about: http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/blue-is-the-warmest-color-author-julie-maroh-not-pleased-with-graphic-sex-in-film-20130528

      Even if it were correct to characterize her feelings about the movie (and Kechiche’s obligations to be “faithful” to her own vision in making it) as “hate” and nothing more, my answer would be this instructive comparison: Stephen King “hates” Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining.” And that’s his prerogative. He wrote the book it’s based on — and therefore is just too close to the material, as would be natural, to appreciate what a brilliant movie it is. A brilliant movie, that is, in my–and many others’–opinion.

      I take your critique–which sadly employs a good bit of angry rhetoric like “pig,” and I’ll term it a “disconcerting” highlight of the director’s nationality–at face value. Though it all seems a bit much to me; your guest name “Outraged” suggests a level of disgust you’re certainly entitled to, but I confess to regarding it with skepticism if not outright suspicion, in a world that includes films of far less humanity and far more “outrageous” content. (You’d think the movie was “Salo” for the amount of fussbudget indignation that’s been leveled at it)

      Lastly: Kechiche is from Tunisia, not Turkey. Being xenophobic is one thing; at least get your facts straight.