(*don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie yet.)
I finally saw Blue is the Warmest Color earlier this week after eagerly waiting for months. Perhaps because my expectations were sky high, my initial reaction was overwhelmingly positive but not effusive. I was not blown away. Immediately after watching it, I ended up getting into a long discussion with the person I saw the movie with regarding the sex scenes, the idea of the male gaze, and the sorry lack of female directors and stories about women in contemporary film. I had found the sex scenes really awkward and jarring, and my initial take was that they blunted the movie’s otherwise considerable achievement.
After a lot of thinking, my love for the movie has grown tremendously since watching it. Oddly this has happened as I have read the debate over the sex scenes and what Manohla Dargis has deemed the movie’s problem with woman. I think Dargis’s observations are accurate, but I end up siding more with A.O. Scott regarding these issues. It seems to clear to me that far from being oblivious about these issues, Kechiche is quite explicitly taking them up or at least is aware of them. The issue of viewing beauty and depicting it, especially the female form, is constantly at the forefront of the movie. In one of their earlier encounters, Emma and Adele view nudes at a museum, and Emma (Lea Seydoux’s character) is a painter of female nudes herself. Buying into the narrative of the male gaze both ignores the fact that the director overtly engages this debate, and that Emma’s character herself gets into a debate with one of her friends about the representation of the female form in art. Through Emma at least, Kechiche is letting a woman depict, represent, and comment on the female form.
But just because Kechiche is aware of the male gaze problem doesn’t quite mean he escapes it. I think this is true of the sex scenes but even there I am willing to excuse Kechiche a little bit. I was having a hard time articulating it, but basically the sex scenes make sense to me because the movie was about the totality of Adele’s experience of growing up — her emotional and psychological maturation — through her attraction, love, and relationship with Emma. Totality is the key word. If the goal was to put the core of Adele’s experience and transformation on the screen, then shying away from the sexual relationship between Adele and Emma would be wrong. Especially, because the two characters’ conversation at the end emphasizes that their physical relationship was a key part of their relationship. Kechiche’s intention behind the long sex scenes makes sense because he wanted to show that their physicality and pleasure in each other was vital to their relationship. As A.O. Scott argues, the real problem is that Kechiche largely fails in the execution.
But “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is ardently and sincerely committed to capturing the fullness of Adèle’s experience — sensory, cerebral and emotional. The sex is essential to that intention, even though Mr. Kechiche’s way of filming does not quite succeed in fulfilling it. Trying to push the boundaries of empathy, to communicate physical rapture by visual means, he bumps into the limits of the medium and lapses into voyeurism, turning erotic sensation into a spectacle of flesh.
In this brilliant piece of criticism, Richard Brody perfectly articulates some of what I was thinking and provides I think one of the most interesting readings of the movie. According to Brody, the film and Kechiche’s vision are about the tension between social culture and the physical body, and the film’s politics is about reclaiming the physical and personal from the public. This means not just rebelling against mainstream culture, but going beyond that to reveal the more individual social and cultural constraints each of the characters faces. Hence the focus on the class tensions between Emma’s and Adele’s families, instead of on society’s homophobia. Instead of pitting homophobia as the central challenge to the women’s relationship, Kechiche is more interested in displaying the complex and subtle challenges our society presents each of us. By aiming for something far more universal, he treats his characters not merely as female or lesbian archetypes, but as truly, tragically human. This I think is a great feat.
A couple of scenes that to me emphasize this point are the two rallies Adele goes to. In both — one seemed to be about economic issues, the other a gay pride parade — the focus of Kechiche’s camera was more on Adele’s face and her dancing, energetic body — than on the political issues being represented. Even during the gay pride parade, when the camera shows her surroundings, it immediately jumps back to display Adele’s own reaction to these things. Even in the most public and overtly political of settings, Kechiche focuses on the personal and the individual. He is far more interested in the emotional and psychological interior of Adele and how she chooses to display her feelings physically. There are several times in these scenes where Adele gets lost in thought and observation. But she continually has to revert back to physically engaging the setting she is in, bursting into chants and dancing. Even when it comes to the politics she genuinely supports, it is hard to tell how much of Adele’s energetic rebellion at the rallies is a product of her own feelings versus a giving in to the environment she finds herself in.
As Brody argues, Kechiche isn’t interested in mainstream political debates. His vision is far more radical in its politics — focusing on how any socio-cultural ecosystem inherently places demands and constraints on individual people. For the two women in this movie, the constraints on their love may begin with society’s homophobia, but in the end their problems largely derive from their own ambitions, social circles, and values which are shaped by their environment. Both Adele and Emma are proudly and ambiguously queer, but this doesn’t mean their experiences are similar. The discomfort Emma feels at Adele’s family’s dinner table is nothing compared to the nervousness on Adele’s face when she first enters a gay bar. In this way the film’s politics call into question identity politics and gay culture as well — for these come with their own sets of markers and expectations as well. In Kechiche’s art, the only pure thing is the personal, the intimate, the physical.
The overwhelming sadness of the movie is that even Emma and Adele’s love, no matter how warmly it burned, finally gives out in the face of these broader forces.