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The problems with the problems with ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’

by Melissa Weller

November 5, 2013 | 4:06 pm

Describing exactly the way Blue is the Warmest Color affected me, as I’m sure it did millions of people, is a struggle, especially from a critical standpoint. It’s an intimate and subjective reflection of people, places and times, carrying the hours with tides of raw emotion rather than frequent chronological plot points. If even one event had been cut, watching it may have felt more like sitting in Emma’s art gallery for three hours than watching a media-frenzied NC-17 Palme d’Or winner.

But carry the tides it did. I felt like every emotion of sorrow, lust, fulfillment, peace or regret my gut is capable of holding was twisted into a ball that replaced both my heart and my stomach. There was something otherworldly yet entirely familiar about each interaction and each scene. Yet the beauty and mysticism woven through every sound and every image couldn’t be recognized anywhere in my life. What came was a heightened sensitivity to vital aspects, vital outlooks that help comprise my day-to-day world, my day-to-day truth. This is a movie, really, about the layered young soul of woman.

Blue starts off fairly recognizable: classroom cliques, high school lip, awkward courtship. A 15-year-old Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) appears to struggle with sexuality, but at first the struggle seems more with her sexuality and not her sexuality. Adèle as a primal, salacious animal, “voracious” as Emma calls her, is shown through close-ups of her very busy mouth, incessant tossing of her hair and an insatiable hunger for all things carb. Like all teens, she is influenced by her friends and frustrated when their biddings blow up in her face, but she also emits an essence of caged closeted existence. Perhaps also not uncommon for teens, but hers is especially palpable. When Emma (Léa Seydoux) first enters her consciousness via a chanced crossing in the street (that trailer-famous scene), the true intentions of the film begin to unfold. Emma’s handsome, confident glances captured me as quickly as they did Adèle. One hypnotic bar meeting and high school courtyard tussle later, we’re off to the races.

The movie is chiefly told through close-ups; oftentimes Exarchopoulos’ teeth take up half the screen. Impacts of the world at large or strategically placed foretelling props are of little to no concern, as the secular world existing outside Emma and Adèle's Love Temple is not important to director Abdellatif Kechiche’s objective.  Mise en scene, schmise en scene – he let their intertwining fingers and legs, their bare eyelashes, a spaghetti slurp and a broken-hearted snot bubble tell the story. 

With buzz aplenty, the spicy rumors surrounding this cumming-of-age tale weren’t hard to find hiding in plain sight. “XXXPLICIT GIRL-ON-GIRL SEXCAPADES” or something equally brazen swarm conversations about Blue is the Warmest Color, but fear not the banality of such misguided simplifications. Constructive feedback of this nature comes largely from those hiding in YouTube comment threads, many who haven’t even seen the movie.

Sparking the chatter specifically is the seven-minute sex scene, which features the stark naked leading ladies biting, slapping, howling and gyrating in on and around each other with lustful raw instinct. It’s quite a sight. Very gripping, very hot. Like, banned in Idaho hot. The film has actually been referenced as pornography on more than one occasion because of this scene, a categorizing I have difficulty with. People who perform these lacy, leathery, handcuffy sexploits for the camera – let’s call them porn stars – are not telling a story. They are not actors; they are performers. They perform such acts with a mastery and efficiency most of their fans can only dream about, but a director yells cut more often from a mechanical error than, say, his performer not quite capturing the nuances of an intimate facial expression he had envisioned in pre-production. The Seven Minutes in Heaven with Emma and Adèle is nothing like porn. No overgenerous boob shots, no vivacious tongue-wagging, no cheap thrills. They care only for the woman in front of them, to touch her, to kiss her, to take completely, and the turned on-ness of the audience is none of their concern.  They are actors belonging wholly to the story.

To be clear, Blue is a love story between two people – that these two people are female is a minor detail. But the tenderness and connectedness between Adèle and Emma that Kechiche was able to capture may have had much to do with them being women. There is a scene early on with Emma and Adèle discussing the existence and essence of humans, Adèle comparing it to a chicken-or-the-egg situation in such that theorizing over which came first is ultimately futile – yet the conversation makes for an interesting analogy to a major theme of the movie. True, Emma and Adèle exist biologically female, but their woman essence is what threads the harmony of gentility and strength in ways a male-female, or male-male, love story could not have.

Woman’s beautiful mysteriousness has long been centric to centuries of literature, theater, music and artworks. Women are captivating. Women are difficult. Women can be indecisive yet headstrong, hurt yet forgiving, lonely yet loving, hateful yet warm, all within 30 seconds. A man’s lifelong journey to understanding the fairer sex is exhausting, almost as exhausting as a woman’s journey to understanding herself. Yet we appear again and again as the focal point of these expressions, Blue is the Warmest Color being another.

A scene essential to the movie’s purposes unravels during a dinner party at Emma and Adèle's home. Several dozen pairs of Emma’s artsy pants talk with self-masturbation about their art and their accomplishments and their goals and their artistic heroes and their accomplishments and their goals and everything artistically relevant in between. Joaquim (Stephane Mercoyrol), a successful gallery owner reeking of pretention, delves into the near-indescribable mysticism that is the beast of female sexuality, describing in awe the ability of a woman’s face to look so distant, as though on a different planet. He recalls a story of a man who transforms into a woman, then back again to a man and finds that the pleasure of a woman was “nine times that of a man’s.” Though Joaquim is referring specifically to physical orgasm with this story, its theme reflects the far more compelling significance of woman substance – tangible and intangible alike.

An easy mischaracterization of Blue is that it’s a “lesbian” movie. Though far less destructive than the porn label, I do think it vastly understates and underserves the level of artistry put forth by the filmmakers. It’s not championing a social cause du jour.  In a Huffington Post article from Nico Lang titled “A Lesbian Movie Without Lesbians: The Problem With Blue is the Warmest Color,” he operates under an incorrect assumption when he writes, “For a film so strongly about the way lesbians have sex, a movie produced only by straight people will have a harder time representing that.” The Problem With Nico was his failure to understand that the movie was in no way about the way lesbians have sex. It meant to portray the intimate stages of love and heartbreak from an astoundingly soft, beautiful, and complicated place that most stories of love and loss do not. It strums and holds a familiar melody of the precious nostalgia born from all our great losses, including and especially the most sacred parts of the loss. For Adèle, the life-changing sexual relationship she experienced with Emma is just one of those sacred parts.

Julie Maroh, author of the book which the film is based, expressed dissatisfaction on her blog about the absence of actual lesbians on set, an observation that many reviews have pointed out. She and several other critics, mostly female, lament the picturesque Seydoux and Exarchopoulos interpreting lesbian sex as so unrealistically beautiful. Amy Taubin, an editor for Film Comment magazine, said, “They are exquisitely lit actresses pretending to have sex. They are made to look ridiculously, flawlessly beautiful.” But another observation Maroh made in the same post recognizes Kechiche’s right to creative authority in telling the story that her book inspired. Of course Kechiche owes a great deal to Maroh, but it was never his intention to regurgitate the book on screen. To these criticisms, he said, “What I was trying to do…was to film what I found beautiful. So we shot them like paintings, like sculptures.”

As he should have. Blue is the Warmest Color meant to portray what centuries of artists have attempted: the multi-layered beautiful mystery of woman. What he and these marvelous actresses created is utterly magnificent, and those griping about Exarchopoulos’ perky rear end are doing themselves a tragic injustice by not appreciating the intimate artistry before them. Taubin’s opinion that “no one would be interested in this movie if you take the sex out” is not only short-sighted and offensive, it’s arguably misogynistic.

But, fear not the banality of such misguided simplifications.

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