Discomfort at the movies is an odd feeling. It evokes a mixture of eye-averting, leg-shifting, and some casual looking around at the other moviegoers to make sure you’re not the only one feeling this way. There was a lot of discomfort involved in watching Blue is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche’s film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this summer. The director shared the award with the two main actresses, Léa Seydoux, and Kechiche’s ingénue Adèle Exarchopoulos. Given the media hype around the explicit girl-on-girl sex in the film, in a few years we might remember it, unfortunately, simply as “that lesbian movie with the long (very long) sex scene.” But the discomfort I felt wasn’t at the sight of sex—after all, this is a European film—or with Kechiche’s objectifying male gaze which reduces cinematic sex to pornography. The realness of emotion that Kechiche captured and that the actresses beautifully portrayed is what had me squirming in my seat. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos were awarded for their acting, not their bodies.
The film is loosely based on Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Le Bleu est une couleur chaude and follows the life of teenager Adèle (Exarchopoulos) in the small city of Lille—the original title is, aptly, La Vie d’Adèle. She is charming, if a bit feisty, and is preoccupied with romance, Bolognese, and books. She’s young. She finds herself in a relationship with a boy from her class but “something is missing.” At school she is sitting outside one day between classes with a female friend who tells her she is “very cute” and kisses her, only to flit away to some engagement. When Adèle later passionately returns the kiss in the girls’ bathroom, her sentimental heart is broken. Her friend was only toying with her; it wasn’t supposed to mean anything. On a night out with a gay friend, Adèle follows a group of women to a lesbian bar, where she spots the blue-haired Emma (Seydoux), who had lustily eyed her a few scenes earlier as they walked past one another at a busy crosswalk. Their relationship, spanning across several months from its passionate, carefree beginnings to its eventual break beneath unresolved sexual and class tensions, is the subject of this film.
The camera is glued to Emma and Adèle’s faces as they lie in the grass and look at one another longingly, as they kiss, as they talk, as they eat, and as they cry, sometimes quite violently. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s film theory directly equates the close-up to emotion, the mediated face becoming a visual field to be read. Yet Kechiche’s camera seems to be after a slightly different effect, hovering around his two muses as if to say, look at them.
Indeed there is something confrontational about the film—a sustained confrontation that makes the emotions and the characters seem more real. Adèle’s voracious appetite, when you watch her mouth inhale spaghetti several times throughout the movie, is somewhat off-putting, and, in being so, is made very present. It’s painful to watch Adèle sob and wail, snot running down her nose. The infamous sex scene, which Lorrie Moore in The New York Review of Books calls “too long” and “emotionally uninformative,” may be just another exercise in such confrontation. You are forced to sit through seven minutes of heavily physical grunting, rubbing, licking, and moaning which consciously resists the more “elegant” cuts that hint at sexual pleasure but don’t show it.
Confrontation in art is not a new subject, particularly when concerning sex and the female nude. Manet’s Olympia (1865) made a splash amongst critics not for its nudity but for its portrayal of a real person, and a prostitute no less. The name “Olympia” was widely associated with prostitutes at the time and the ribbon around her neck, the flower in her hair, and the surroundings would have made it obvious to even the most thickheaded critic what this woman was. To make matters worse, the model, gazing directly out at the viewer, was identifiable as Victorine Meurent, who had posed for Manet in several of his other paintings, including his other scandal-rousing painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863). Manet isn’t necessarily after authenticity—his painting style is hardly photo-realistic—but reality. And it is reality that would question the very tradition of academic nude painting, which removed any trace of humanness from a woman, leaving only her distilled, idealized form.
And reality is undeniably discomforting. Maroh, the author of the graphic novel, critiqued Kechiche’s prolonged sex scene as uninformed and unconvincing, denouncing his misguided portrayal of lesbian sex (there’s also a YouTube video of lesbian women reacting to the sex in the film). Maroh, however, seems to overlook the fact that this is neither a documentary nor an instructive video on lesbian sex. The impact of the scene is not only in its explicitness, but also in how much the actresses give of themselves, physically and emotionally. The sex may not be authentic but the sheer force and emotional strength needed to play this scene is captured boldly on the screen.
Exarchopoulos, in an interview with Interview Magazine, counters Maroh’s critique. “It’s the first time for Adèle. She’s not making love like a lesbian, she’s just making love like a human being who is learning everything and who is so in love and obsessed with this woman.” Which doesn’t sound too far off from the nineteen-year-old Exarchopoulos, for whom this is the first major role. She is, like Adèle, “learning everything.” In fact part of what makes this film so beautiful is how convincingly real the character of Adèle is, so much so that you forget she is actually an actress. That the film is named after her is no coincidence.
There’s a Tumblr called “FYeahAdèLéa” dedicated to photos and GIFs of Seydoux and Exarchopoulos as well as shots from the film that make it look like the actresses are a true couple, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. The two exchange flirty comments at interviews, look into each other’s eyes on the red carpet, and link arms on the way to meeting president François Hollande. When I found it I asked myself outloud, is this for real?
Why yes, yes it is.
Ryohei Ozaki is a senior in the French and Italian Department.