By Her Standards
by ELENA SCHILDER
Blue Is The Warmest Color
dir. Abdellatif Kechiche
Objects from French culture often provide a warning to our sometimes dogmatic American sense of irony. American women love to talk about how effortlessly French women wear their stylish clothing, and the same might be said for French stories, which sometimes seem able to pull off things American artists wouldn’t be able to stomach in their own work: naturalistic sex, for instance, or heartfelt scenes between lovers. When Hollywood tackles young love, we get Adventureland; from the French, we get Blue Is The Warmest Color.
Blue is based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh; it traces several years in the life of a young French woman, Adèle. She falls in love with an older art student named Emma, and that relationship foregrounds other developments in her life during these formative years, when she leaves her parents’ home and studies to become a teacher.
A sequence of three scenes in the middle of the film depicts the first sexual encounters between Adèle and Emma. The first of the scenes is somewhere between six and ten minutes long. The second two sex scenes are juxtaposed with two dinner scenes, wherein each of the girls is introduced to the other girl’s parents; the dinner scenes each end in a quick cut to graphic sex that we assume is happening while the parents are downstairs doing the dishes. The contrast is meant, I think, to be funny.
Do you remember what it’s like to be a teenager? Much has been made of sensuality as this film’s central topic: Adèle, the interpretation goes, is hungry, and the film lists her attempts to satiate herself. Critics say that Kechiche too clearly draws the link between the box of candy bars Adèle hides under her bed, the oysters she slurps with Emma, and their eventual sex life. Appetite is everything in this movie, we’ve heard. But do you remember how hungry you were as a teenager, both for food and for sex? Blue is not the first creative depiction of this phase of life, during which emotion and appetite and sexuality each play a part in the quick growth of the body toward its adult form. It’s not an easy time for most people, and yet it is a crucial time full of first encounters and waves of preoccupation. It’s a painful pleasure to remember all that, watching Adèle.
Manohla Dargis recently wrote an op-ed for the Times that followed up on her initial criticisms of Blue Is The Warmest Color when it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May. Her argument strays in manifold directions, but it generally concerns the way women and their bodies are portrayed in this and other films made by male directors. The op-ed begins, “It was her derrière that first caught my eye,” and goes on to describe Adèle’s ass as “a lovely derrière, no question, round, compact and firm.” The first paragraph ends with her assessment that “the director, Abdellatif Kechiche...likes a tight end.” I draw attention to these phrases out of context because they so clearly established for me Dargis’ tone, which adopts much of the crassness she attributes to Kechiche and his film-making.
In order to make her points, Dargis continually and explicitly makes reference to the realm of lechery — obviously quite present and harmful in her mind’s eye but not necessarily apparent in the language of the film. Is sexual predation inherent to someone of Mr. Kechiche’s age and gender? Is it likely that Kechiche, a man who wanted to make a three-hour-long film about two French girls in love, did so because he wanted to get them to make out in front of him?
I don’t mean to say that it didn’t cross my mind while I watched that epic sex scene. I thought about the relative youth of the two women, and I thought about the man behind the camera and his position of power — multiple positions of power, since he is both an older man and their director. One of the things that so angered me in Dargis’s critique was that I felt bullied by it into taking a position much less nuanced than my own experience of the film had elicited.
If I oppose her, I’m made to feel like an enemy to my sex, one of those women who defends male chauvinism, probably out of some deeply imbedded insecurity of my own. If I agree with her, I have to reject my feelings of identification with the film, especially if I was influenced by sensualist impulses. Adèle Exarchopoulos’s beauty is inarguably a driving force behind the film and its pleasures. Am I as lecherous as Kechiche for thinking she’s sexy?
If I had time and space in this format, I would argue with Dargis point by point, because I feel strongly that conventionalized thinking about women and feminism is both pervasive and toxic. At one point, she quotes Simone de Beauvoir:
In The Second Sex, Beauvoir wrote that “the erotic experience is one that most poignantly discloses to human beings the ambiguity of their condition; in it they are aware of themselves as flesh and spirit, as the other and as the subject.” This is the ideal, but for Adèle, the erotic experience leads to despair, desperation, isolation. The body betrays her — just like a woman.
This is the ideal. One of the great things about being a woman in 2013 is that “the ideal” for you sexually is hopefully a function of your own tastes, your own “flesh and spirit.” Beauvoir, of course, was writing about the experience of sex, whereas Dargis is commenting on a depiction of it on film. But I can think of no evidence in Blue Is The Warmest Color that Adèle feels betrayed by her body or by Emma’s. In fact, one of the admirable things about the film is that it reminds us how connected the body is to the mind and the soul, how influenced Adèle’s thoughts and reading are by her desires and vice versa.
Dargis and others have commented that the sex in Blue “borrows from” pornography. They point to the distinct change in point of view that occurs when sex happens in the movie: Kechiche stays close to Adèle’s face, except when she’s in the bedroom. This has been offered as a comment on Kechiche’s inadequacy in documenting sex as naturalistically as he documents other parts of his characters’ lives, by resorting to moves from the “the industrial handbook of male-oriented pornography,” as Dargis calls it.
It’s funny to think about Kechiche taking The Handbook down from his shelf and dusting it off before getting ready to film the pantomimed sex between Seydoux and Exarchopoulos. I think it’s fair to say that in this culture of “male-oriented” pornography, all sex acts, real or fictional, take on aspects of The Handbook, for better or worse. Porn is widely available and endlessly consumed. The sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color reminded me of porn I’ve watched; they also reminded me of sex I’ve had. I doubt those associations could have been avoided even by the most thoughtful, “female-oriented” director.
I don’t think I quite realized how pervasive images from pornography had become until I read American Psycho in 2010. I remember being struck by Bret Easton Ellis’s use of sexual scenarios that I’d seen in porn; of course, in that novel the ten-minute sex scenes often end in a bloodbath. But mixed into the brutality were images that now seem utterly commonplace to me and the other millions of consumers of Internet porn. I was struck by how different it was to read these images than to watch them, and how conventional pornography had become for me, though I came it to it rather later in life than most of my peers. People of my generation will no doubt agree with me when I say that porn has influenced our sex lives profoundly: men and women raised on porn tend to some degree to reflect its conventions. I could bemoan this as further evidence of the backward slide of civilization but I can’t help but feel anything but neutral about it.After all, whatever damage it’s done me is unlikely to be reversed at this point.
Another writer I admire, Marilynne Robinson, talks and writes sometimes about how her personal tastes, dictated in part by religion, preclude her from appreciating sex in fiction. In her Paris Review interview, she said:
When I’m teaching, sometimes issues come up. I might read a scene in a student’s story that seems—by my standards—pornographic. I don’t believe in exploiting or treating with disrespect even an imagined person. But at the same time, I realize that I can’t universalize my standards. In instances like that, I feel I have to hold my religious reaction at bay. It is important to let people live out their experience of the world without censorious interference, except in very extreme cases.
Anyone who has read a sex scene in fiction or watched a sex scene in a movie will know to some extent what Robinson means. Whether we are disposed to think of these scenes as exploitative or not, there is something inevitably awkward in them, a sense that the writer or filmmaker attempts to do justice to something best kept private. One understands the impulse to write about sex and make films that include sex, and that impulse need not be accused of capitalizing on some essentially “male” appetite for the pornographic. Because artists are free to depict sex, at this time and in this part of the world, they do. It’s thrilling to try it, but often the results are unsatisfying. Which, frankly, is not an uncommon description of the sex act itself.
It seems unfair that Blue Is The Warmest Color's reception be so overwhelmed by the reception of its most intimate segments. As we are constantly reminded, “sex sells,” and the rumored ten-minute lesbian sex scene will inevitably garner the film a wider audience as it makes its way around the world (though not to Idaho). Viewers will have to draw their own conclusions about whether Kechiche has ignored “bodily excesses and excretions in favor of tasteful, decorous poses” (Dargis again). I have a very vague memory of the sex in the movie: I can remember their white bodies against a blue background, a little bit awkward and staged in their embraces. What I remember vividly from the movie is the repeated close-up of Adèle’s face: smiling, weeping, experiencing.
American moviegoers don’t learn until the end of the movie that its French title is La Vie d’Adèle: Chapitre 1 & 2. I liked this detail and found it revealing. Thinking of the film as the first two phases of a life in progress frees it from the weight of love and sex, a weight we seem ready to throw onto anything that moves.
Elena Schilder is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her babysitting opportunities.
"Blue Bleezin' Blind Drunk" - Linda Thompson (mp3)
The new album from Linda Thompson is entitled Won't Be Long, and it was released on October 15th from Pettifer Sounds.