Tuesday, September 15, 2015

#695: Blue Is the Warmest Color

(Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

I am not a lesbian. This is probably obvious to anyone who has read this blog before, but it's worth noting here because it's especially essential to understanding where I'm coming from in this response to Blue Is the Warmest Color, one of the more fascinating, controversial, and enigmatic recent entries into the Criterion Collection.

By its very nature, film is an interaction with the Other, most literally with the past, but often with different cultures, locations, people, realities. It might seem like a (kind of) lesbian love story should be no different than a Japanese domestic drama or a Swedish medieval parable - as a white straight American male, there is always the risk of translating the themes and politics of a film poorly, of valuing its "otherness" as a fetishized progressive ideal instead of meeting its humanity head-on with balanced perspective.

Yet some films are especially hard to evaluate, even for viewers who identify as belonging to the world the film is attempting to depict. Blue Is the Warmest Color has an unfair weight placed on it simply because there are so few films with which to compare it. The number of lesbian love stories in mainstream cinema in any country is almost criminally small, while the number of those films which attempt to depict sexuality in explicit and authentic terms is, well, seemingly non-existent. When something like this happens, there's nowhere for a film to hide, nothing to place beside it. Some reviewers clumsily stumble toward The L Word, a show with a deeply conflicted fanbase, saddled with a flawed show that is nevertheless the only thing they have to point to in the culture at large.

It is not Blue Is the Warmest Color's fault that it must carry this weight, but there are other strikes against the film that make it difficult to love. I begin with the rareness of Blue's subject matter because it is a tragic state of affairs, a black mark on cinema that raises the larger issue of the dominance of male voices in the medium - particularly straight white ones. This stems entirely from the enormous amount of money required to produce a film, which places more prejudices in play - a gay woman can sit down to pen a comic book memoir quite easily, but it takes many wealthy men making big decisions to greenlight the same story's big-screen adaptation. The easiest response to the criticism that Kechiche shouldn't have taken on content that would almost certainly have been better produced by a woman is to say "look around at who gets funding - if he didn't do it, who would?"

The other strikes I mention are perhaps just as complicated, but more common and certainly not singular. There are three basic areas of controversy surrounding Blue Is the Warmest Color, though all have deep roots in gender politics: the treatment of the actresses on set (and how it relates to Kechiche's general approach to filmmaking), the depiction of women in the film (both in the technical tradition of "the male gaze" and in the specific presentation of Adéle), and the more specific depiction of lesbian sex (few critics have complained about the general depiction of lesbians beyond these explicit scenes, so the controversy extends beyond the bedroom only insofar as these intimate moments inform one's viewing of the larger picture). Many articles on the movie have confused the two latter topics, preferring to think of the film as inherently about lesbians rather than women. I think this is a mistake that damages an investigation of the first topic, which is to say that assuming the film is a mere attempt at a lesbian love story (or even one at all) gives short shrift to all three issues and misses both the conscious and subconscious point of the film.

I'll begin with the controversy surrounding the making of the film, both because it is the easiest to dismiss and because it informs the way anyone sees the other issues. Although there were some serious labor allegations already brewing, the bulk of the controversy came out of an interview in The Daily Beast shortly after the Cannes win (where the actresses shared the Palmes D'Or with the director, a move that speaks to the uncomfortable politics wrapped up in the film's power dynamics), where the two leads discussed their negative experiences on the set of the film. Initially much of the criticism seems to come from their (understandable) embarrassment over the emotionally raw and explicit sex scenes, but it quickly opens up into more serious descriptions of abuse that depict working conditions that sound certainly toxic if not borderline criminal.

As a leader of an actor's guild, an activist focused on developing healthy gender-safe working conditions, or perhaps a studio executive considering bankrolling the next Kechiche film, these testimonials would merit more concern. As a filmgoer, I'm not sure they are worth very much. Obviously the limits of cinematic exploitation exist, and there's a line at which the story behind the making of a film can overrule any of the artistic value of the finished product (the most extreme being snuff films, but really any film in which intentional physical suffering with long-term damage is difficult if not impossible to accept). But these stories seem more like the psychological scorn heaped on Shelly Duvall by Stanley Kubrick in the making of The Shining than anything approaching dangerous. Without evidence of wrongdoing that goes beyond someone being a terrible person who treats everyone like garbage, wholesale dismissal of a movie seems understandable but hardly mandatory. The grand example of hating the artist but loving the art is either Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, and in both cases the flaws are so baked into the work itself that it's impossible to avoid. Blue Is the Warmest Color may be fatally masculine in its perspective, but it would be harder (though not impossible) to argue that the film is misogynistic.

So if the film is to be taken for what is on the screen and nothing else, what is to be made of the three-hour personal epic that is Blue Is the Warmest Color? The first thing to note about the film is something everyone notes about it: Adéle Exarchopoulos is a movie star of the highest order. Though this isn't the grandest performance (she's still very young), she's in nearly every scene and it's impossible to look away - nor do you want to. Adéle has that incredible pull in front of the camera that is only tangentially related to beauty, an excitement about what she'll do next that feels dangerous and exciting at the same time. It's fitting that she's making a movie with Sean Penn, who shares the same talent as an actor, and she's the one piece of Blue that needn't be debated.

The next thing everyone notes about the film is that, despite the hype, the sex scenes take up about ten percent of a three hour movie. That means there's a whole (pretty long) movie here that has no sex whatsoever. Once the first blush of the love affair has faded, there's about an hour and a half of the film without any sex at all (though it features a handful of gratuitous ass shots that Manohla Dargis rightly took offense to). I think this is most important because the movie's most complex gender issues are revealed outside of the bedroom, as are the true intentions of the film. The movie certainly wouldn't have received as much attention if it was not for the lengthy sex scene that is the center of the controversy surrounding the movie, but if the film treated this aspect of their love story in an honest way that asserted the importance of sex in the role of relationships, is it the movie's fault that countless other films have had the same opportunity but, fearing the backlash and pigeonholing that comes with explicit sex, have timidly faded to the morning after?

There is no denying the significance of the sex scene, though, and here is where the movie gets into hot water. As someone with no lesbian-sex experience (yet!), I can't tell you how "authentic" the sex is. I can say, however, that the scene felt pretty fucking awkward. In fact, the scene it reminded me of most was the horrible, wonderful waterfall sex scene in Showgirls, which is so special that if you haven't seen it you should really do yourself a favor. That film's sex scenes were odd because it frequently felt like the movie had been made by ten-year-old boys who not only had never had sex before, but had never seen anyone have sex, had never been to Las Vegas, and seemingly believed a "showgirl" was someone who got aggressive about french fries. Needless to say, the fact that I was reminded of this while watching Blue Is the Warmest Color is not good - I guess what I'm saying is that intrinsically I felt this wasn't how any real person had sex. I don't think that's just because the movie is depicting such an unusually passionate encounter - I've seen In the Realm of the Senses, and while the sexual scenes in that film were certainly umm.... interesting? and significantly more plentiful than they are here, they never felt inauthentic.

That said, I have a really hard time making any sort of universal judgment about the scene, because this is where I think many of my straight while male co-conspirators have gotten into hot water. I'm not about to bust out the "mansplaining" headlines, but I tend to think that if you are in a position of privilege and someone calls out a depiction of their gender, race, or other oppressed class as potentially troublesome, it's a good idea to shut up and listen, instead of thrilling at the opportunity to shoot down their concern. Is the sex in Blue Is the Warmest Color unrealistic, pornographic, doomed by "the male gaze"? Perhaps. But the only way I could come to a better conclusion on that is to engage, to discuss, and to read pieces like the wonderful and provocative one by Manohla Dargis.

What's most disappointing about the debate over the sex scene is that it obscures what I see as the more significant problem with Blue Is the Warmest Color, which is its depiction of women, like Dargis points out, not as they are but as they are seen. There are a number of revealing moments throughout the movie that give me pause, but the one that is most apparent - and has been discussed most frequently elsewhere - is the scene in which an art director explains that he believes the female orgasm is magical, that women can experience much more pleasure than a man, and essentially describes the role of the director in the very sex scene that just happened in the film.

It's telling that the secret theme of a film that features two lead women with a focus that almost never strays from their relationship is delivered by a male character we hardly know and never see again. This stand in for Kechiche has just given away the game, and his sly insertion into the love story at hand is most troubling because it is done so consciously, like a gleeful criminal daring us to catch him.

The uncomfortable male gaze of the film doesn't stop there, it's infused in nearly every frame of the movie, from Adéle's casually drooping cigarettes to the camera's remarkable ability to be where her body is going before she gets there. Even as I dismissed the backstory of the filming, it's impossible to overlook the fact that Kechiche has a history of casting beautiful young women in his films. When combined with the pure physical passion of Adéle's character, this fact sticks out in my mind, and the eroticism of her story threatens to overthrow her humanity at every turn. Even a beautiful scene like the art party, infused with empathy and authenticity, artfully paced and shot, can be ruined by a boorish speech or a juxtaposition of Adéle's jealous stares at her girlfriend flirting with an ex and a man she has just met doing the same to her, fascinated by her unattainable status as "Lesbian." The men in the film, constantly sexualizing Adéle, might feel more like critical commentary on the state of men if the film didn't seem so fascinated with the same things they are (and if the implication of the ending wasn't that Adéle would eventually end up with one of them).

These concerns have been obscured by the sex debate, so that moments that have troubling implications and reinforce one of the oldest, most disturbing power dynamics in cinema are overlooked by defenders who dismiss critics as prudish, close-minded, overly sensitive. This is especially a mistake because the lesbian nature of the sex scene obscures the fact that the movie itself is neither about a lesbian (Adéle is bisexual, or at the very least confused about her sexuality) nor is it a lesbian film - which is to say that it is not presenting a lesbian or queer perspective and, illustratively, its director does not consider the movie to be about lesbians. By fixating on the idea that the movie is about lesbians, the conversation has overlooked the larger question of femininity and its role in male-dominated cinema.

I've written a lot here because I am fascinated by the absence of female voices in cinema and dedicated to re-engaging with film in a way that challenges conventional notions of what women should look like on film. Blue Is the Warmest Color stirs up these issues both intentionally and unintentionally, and in many ways its difficult to determine where the film lands on these ideas. There is real truth in many of the moments between Adéle and her lover, and Kechiche's dedication to perfection is apparent throughout the film. Immediately after watching the film, I thought it was a worthy inclusion in the Collection and a noteworthy - if flawed - film in cinema history. After reading about the movie and writing this piece, I'm not sure that the film's most notable achievement isn't that it was able to deliver 20th century gender politics with a 21st century façade.

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