Blue is the Warmest Color and the Lesbian ExperienceS

Since it won the Palme D’Or at Cannes this past May, Blue is the Warmest Color has been kicking up a dust cloud of controversy that has shifted recently from the film’s lengthy sex scene and NC-17 rating to allegations by the movie’s stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos that director Abdellatif Kechiche was “horrible” to work with and Kechiche’s retaliatory threat to sue Seydoux for defamation. The American media has covered the hubbub around the film with gusto, eagerly cramming the words “lesbian,” “sex,” and “NC-17” in headlines, while the film press has, by and large, lauded the film as a masterpiece. But as critic after critic waxes poetic about lesbian sex, it’s hard for me not to notice that the voice missing from the mass media conversation around the film is a queer one.

Recently New York Magazine published a round-up of every major review that addressed the film’s notorious sex scene. Only 3 out of 18 of those articles were written by women (Stephanie Zacharek for the Village Voice, Betsy Sharkey for the LA Times, and Ella Taylor for The Wrap). It is a massive oversight that, for the most part, men have generated the critical dialogue around this film (considering the dearth of female writers in film criticism — and in general — is another article all together). With the exception of an excellent Manohla Dargis piece that I will get to shortly, male critics have been the ones to point out Kechiche’s “male gaze” — and to comment on sex that they could never experience. Credit must be given to critics like A.O. Scott and Anthony Lane, among others, for at least pointing out the film’s voyeuristic feel, but the discussion cannot end with male critics’ opinions of a film about two gay women.

Manhohla Dargis eventually wrote a follow-up to her initial (less than glowing) review of the film, in which she takes issue with the way that, as she says, “patriarchal anxieties about sex, female appetite and maternity” frame Blue’s female bodies. I agree wholeheartedly with her assessment that there are moments in the film when Kechiche’s desire feels overbearing, and he does indeed spend many a frame focused on Adèle Exarchopoulos’s rear end. (Sure, he also points his camera at the butts of classical sculptures, but the mere interpolation of fine art derrieres does not artistic justification make.)

Dargis also spends several paragraphs discussing a blog post written by Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel on which the film is based. Maroh is the only openly queer female voice we have heard from in the mainstream media so far, and a number of critics have used her as an authority on what lesbians must think of the film. While Maroh spends 80 percent of her post saying she likes the film, what has been quoted most frequently is her description of the sex as “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex.” Whether or not one agrees with that assessment, Maroh’s ultimate conclusion — “It appears to me that this was what was missing on the set: lesbians” — is definitely worth thinking about. At the very least, when Exarchopoulos says to an interviewer: “I’m not that familiar with lesbian sex” it makes you hope that there was more than one gay lady on set giving some instructions.

While Maroh finds the sex scenes to be clinical and says “gay and queer people laughed because it's not convincing at all, and found it ridiculous,” there are plenty of gay women who would disagree with that assessment. I think that is where I take issue with Dargis’s dismissal of the film. By taking Maroh’s opinion as representative of Queer Thinking, she fails to consider what this film might mean to other queer women — me included.

My feelings about Blue is the Warmest Color lie somewhere between unchecked praise and outright dismissal. I will say that, after watching straight couples fall in love on screen for my entire life, this film hit me like a ton of lesbian bricks — that, put plainly, I think that this film has the potential to mean a lot to women who love women. The impact of seeing a love story that looks and feels like a lot like your own can't be understated. This film devastated me and got under my skin not just because it was written or shot well, but because its portrayal of love was so familiar.

For example, while I respect that some gay women might agree with Maroh’s “cold and clinical” diagnosis, I think that the sex in Blue is more similar to the sex I have than any other lesbian sex I’ve ever seen on screen, and that is important — even if Kechiche didn’t get everything right. His preoccupation with scissoring (which comes up again in the artist character Emma’s awful paintings) might be the most obvious misstep — not because some lesbians don’t like scissoring, but because it seems to be the go-to position for people who have no idea how two women might have sex aside from rubbing their junk against one another.

Others have taken issue with the sheer amount of Olympic positions that take place in the scene in question. Yes, the laundry list of seemingly every sexual position possible might be kind of over-the-top, but then again isn’t that what sex is like when you first start having it with someone? A crazy, insatiable frenzy of finding out how you fit together?

Of course, it’s also important to recognize that this three-hour-long film is made up of so much more than its ten-minute sex scene. It only takes watching one episode of The L Word to realize that lesbian-centric stories in mass media usually aren’t very good — even when there were plenty of lesbians on set. These mainstream portrayals of lesbians often feel overdetermined. We’re not watching people fall in love; we’re watching them BE LESBIANS.

That is not the case in Blue. I have never seen a portrayal of a lesbian relationship on screen that captures the experience as truthfully as this film has. Part of that has to do with the nonchalance and easiness with which these women fell in love. In that same blog post, Maroh describes it well as the “banalisation of homosexuality.” By that, she means that this love story unfolds in the same way that any other romance would, regardless of gender. Understanding that the love between these two women can be as ordinary or as “banal” as anyone else’s is an under-touted triumph of this film.

Is this the most perfect version of a lesbian love story? No. Is it a step in a direction? I think so. Will the laudatory critical reception of Blue convince studios to start making more movies like it? I hope so. Because even this film, with all its flaws, presents mainstream audiences with a valuable insight into queer love — specifically, that it isn’t quite so “queer” as they may have thought.

Change is incremental, and this film is at least a step in the right direction when it comes to putting more inclusive narratives on screen. Rather than merely dismissing this film as problematic, I want to ask other gay women: What are the problems and what are the possibilities born from those images? What awareness can they spread about lesbian sex outside of male-oriented porn — of lesbian love outside of the oft-heternormative Hollywood paradigm?

It’s not productive to say that Blue has these problems so it’s not worth seeing. Ultimately, the moments of truth, even if Kechiche stumbled them upon accidentally, outweigh the flaws. It’s important to recognize the ways in which it’s powerful in spite of its issues — while perhaps making a list of what we can get right next time.


Ashton Cooper is News Editor at Blouin Artinfo and Art+Auction magazine. Follow her on twitter @ashton_cooper.