The world of art house film has become a tediously reverential place. Raised on auteur theory and acutely aware that it lacks both the cash and cachet of commercial cinema, the people who write about art film are prone to treating its institutions as temples and its practitioners as living saints. Once filled with experimentation, transgression, provocation and very human failures, the cultural spaces of art house film are now given over to callow hagiography and propping up the careers of once great talents. As one might expect of a milieu that looks upon dissent as an act of economic sabotage, there is a tendency to treat the recipients of major festival awards as worthy regardless of whether their films are any good. Thus, to say that Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour is the most controversial winner of the Palme D’Or in decades is actually a good thing… turns out that there might be some life in the old dog yet.
While the controversy has many heads, the one with the longest teeth erupted prior to the announcement of the Palme D’Or when the New York Times’ senior film critic Manohla Dargis wrote about the film in what she would later describe as “399 words dissenting words”:
It’s disappointing that Mr. Kechiche, whose movies include “The Secret of the Grain” and “Black Venus” (another voyeuristic exercise), seems so unaware or maybe just uninterested in the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades. However sympathetic are the characters and Ms. Exarchopoulos, who produces prodigious amounts of tears and phlegm along with some poignant moments, Mr. Kechiche registers as oblivious to real women. He’s as bad as the male character who prattles on about “mystical” female orgasms and art without evident awareness of the barriers female artists faced or why those barriers might help explain the kind of art, including centuries of writhing female nudes, that was produced.
“Men look at women,” the art critic John Berger observed in 1972. “Women watch themselves being looked at.” Plus ça change….
When people voiced their disagreement, Dargis took the bait and expanded her ideas in an essay that draws on a blog post made by the creator of the graphic novel that inspired the film. Writing in French but translated for Anglophonic consumption, Julie Marot praised the style and vision of the film whilst not only distancing it from her book but also from the real-life experiences of actual LGBT women:
I don’t know the sources of information for the director and the actresses (who are all straight, unless proven otherwise) and I was never consulted upstream. Maybe there was someone there to awkwardly imitate the possible positions with their hands, and/or to show them some porn of so-called “lesbians” (unfortunately it’s hardly ever actually for a lesbian audience). Because — except for a few passages — this is all that it brings to my mind: a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and me feel very ill at ease. Especially when, in the middle of a movie theater, everyone was giggling. The heteronormative laughed because they don’t understand it and find the scene ridiculous. The gay and queer people laughed because it’s not convincing, and found it ridiculous. And among the only people we didn’t hear giggling were the potential guys too busy feasting their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on screen.
In other words, the 2013 Cannes Film Festival jury gave the most prestigious award in world cinema to a piece of grotesque cultural appropriation; a film that took an original graphic novel by a gay woman and filtered it through the beliefs and proclivities of a straight man resulting in a series of needlessly explicit and exploitative sex scenes that owe a good deal more to the tropes and techniques of pornography than to the emotional contours of LGBT life.
Though in and of itself disappointing, the jury’s decision is made infinitely worse by the fact that Cannes Film Festival has an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to the representation of women in general and LGBT women in particular: Since the Palme D’Or assumed its current form in 1975, the award has had only one female winner (Jane Campion). In the year that Blue is the Warmest Colour won the Palme D’Or, there was only one female director in competition and the previous year saw none at all. While the slightly more edgy Un Certain Regard prize has a much better track record of allowing women to compete, men still dominate the list of winners. The problem is not just that the Cannes jury gave its most prestigious award to a straight man’s vision of a lesbian relationship, it’s that it chose to give that film an award despite having completely ignored all the films made by actual LGBT women including Chantal Akerman, Andrea Weiss, Ulrike Ottinger, Barbara Hammer, Lana Wachowski, Monika Treut and Lisa Cholodenko. It is almost as though the Cannes Film Festival only discovered the concept of a non-straight woman when a straight man decided to film a couple of straight women pretending to go down on each other. Given that art house film likes to present itself as being interested in different ways of seeing the world, this addiction to the straight male gaze is complacent, corrosive, wasteful and so completely unacceptable that every passing year brings nothing but shame to an institution already in urgent need of reform.
Clearly, I am not in a position to comment on whether or not the sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Colour are an authentic representation of the way that women have sex with each other. Nor am I in a position to comment on whether or not the film manages to capture the emotional contours of an LGBT relationship. However, I am in a position to comment on how Kechiche’s film made me feel and what I feel is that this is a film that fails to connect with its subject matter. Even if we put aside the questions of appropriation and authenticity posed by the institutional sexism of the Cannes film festival, Blue is the Warmest Colour remains a film hamstrung by an odd reluctance to look beneath the surface and engage with the emotional lives of women.
The film concerns itself with the life of Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) who is very much your typical French teenager. Surrounded by friends who obsess over the gaze and intent of boys, Adele is steered into the path of an older boy who is manifestly besotted with her. Initially reluctant, Adele changes her mind after an intense erotic dream involving a woman with blue hair. Desperate to put her sexuality back into order, Adele goes on a date with the boy and eventually agrees to sleep with him but, despite his being handsome, smart and kind, Adele is not really all that into him. Confused, her mood lightens when a female friend calls her pretty and kisses her but when Adele returns for a second taste the following day, the friend says that it was just a spur of the moment thing. Now depressed, Adele tries to forget her problems by going out for a drink with a gay friend who introduces her to the idea of gay bars and inspires her to go out and find a bar full of women where she meets an art student with blue hair named Emma (Lea Seydoux). Though much older than Adele and already in possession of a girlfriend, Emma takes an interest in the younger woman and eventually seeks her out at the school gate. While this encounter sets up a genuinely horrific confrontation in which Adele’s friends accuse her of being a lesbian, Adele is only too happy to go for a walk with Emma and the pair bond and exchange flirtatious smiles only for Emma to walk away… though naturally the pair do wind up together.
All of the above takes place in a first act that introduces us to tools and techniques that Kechiche uses throughout the film: His primary technique is to let the camera linger on the face of his characters as they experience the world. Thus, we see the frustration in Adele’s face after her experiments with heterosexuality, the joy when she kisses a female friend and the obsessive love that blooms in the wake of an intimate stroll. While this technique allows us to track the subtle changes in the characters’ emotional states, it is at its most effective when dealing in major chords such as Adele’s confused crying over her sexuality and the suffocating horror of the heterosexual inquisition that immediately follows that joyous walk in the park.
Not long after watching Blue is the Warmest Colour I happened to see a fragment of a late episode of ER in which Susan Sarandon appeared to be breaking down in tears. Unusually for an American TV series, the camera lingered on Sarandon’s face for a long time but then, when the news finally hit home that someone was about to die or get their organs harvested or die in a helicopter accident (I forget which), the director chose to ‘augment’ the scene with incidental music. While incidental music has its place, the director’s decision to use it in a shot focused on an actor’s face showed a real lack of understanding. Humans are raised from birth to infer emotional states from facial expressions and while we can learn to extract emotional content from music, our ability to detect emotional nuance in a human face will always outstrip our ability to detect emotional nuance in a piece of music. By shooting his actors’ faces at great length and with no musical cues, Kechiche is indulging his audience’s natural-born tendency to detect and respond to the infinite emotional nuances of a single human face. In fact, Kechiche even acknowledges by using a line from Sartre’s La Nausee about “the mysterious weakness in a man’s face”.
Building a film out of long close-up shots of a human face is absolutely nothing new. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc lingers on the sad beautiful face of Renee Jeanne Falconetti and the ugly twisted faces of those persecuting her in a way that cannot help but inspire sympathy for the character of Joan and hatred for those who would leer and grin at the thought of her suffering. A more sophisticated use of these exact same quirks in human psychology can be found in Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin. Set in an Iranian cinema, Shirin is composed almost entirely of female faces reacting to a film about the suffering and sacrifices of women. However, while the differences in the audience’s reactions hint at the differences in both their stories and backgrounds, we never gain access to those inner landscapes and this is precisely why Blue is the Warmest Colour struggles to connect with its subject matter.
While studying a human face can tell us a surprising amount about what its owner might be feeling at a particular time, it offers no real insight into the trains of thought that are drawn by those emotions and hence how those emotional states fit together to form an identity. Naturally, there are many techniques that a writer or director can use when attempting to construct a coherent character including internal monologues, which give us access not only to how a character feels but also how they process the world and what it is that they are feeling. Marot’s graphic novel provides a classic twist on this technique by having Emma read through the Adele character’s diaries and thus gain a unique insight into how the Adele character saw her and how Emma’s own actions had an influence on her life. Being a dedicated follower of cinematic fashion, Kechiche refuses to make use of internal monologues and goes out of his way to change the plot so as to make Marot’s framing device unworkable. Usually, this would leave him with the option of having Adele explain herself to a friend but the fact that Adele begins and ends the film as an isolated figure means that she never gets the chance to share her inner thoughts. This places Kechiche in the unpleasant situation of having to engineer situations that allow the audience to see what Adele is feeling and why and thereby infer what it is that she is thinking.
There are times when this method works absolutely beautifully. For example, there is a wonderful early scene where Adele is approached by the older boy who wants to date her and the pair sort through any shared interests they might have only for Adele to express her tortured ambivalence in the form of heavily qualified and frequently inconsistent expressions of disagreement: Yes, I like that… but not so much that you should go about getting any ideas… not that there’s anything wrong with you getting ideas, because you’re quite cute and I’m not gay. This scene is then revisited later in the film when Emma’s friends sit around discussing art only for Adele to leap on the opportunity to express her fondness for American films: I’m not one of these people… please help me. Also beautifully observed is the scene where Adele is invited to dinner by Emma’s wealthy parents only to find her sexuality and identity being teased out into the open by an encounter with some oysters. Conversely, when Emma comes to dinner with Adele’s parents, the art student quietly eats spagbol while Daddy holds forth on the pointlessness of studying art. Later, when Adele plays hostess to Emma’s artsy friends, she serves spaghetti as an act of quiet rebellion against a social climate that makes her feel worthless and unloved. However, while these little moments may lend texture to Adele’s life and give the film a real warmth and humanity, they barely scratch the surface of Adele’s inner life.
Part of the problem is that Kechiche really struggles to convey the passage of time and while raw emotions can impact upon our actions, the emotions that provoke change tend to be particularly strong and particularly long lasting. For example, when Adele feels pressured into going on a date with a boy and then refuses to return his kiss, her friends mock her and accuse her of having been up all night shagging. Shamed and tortured by growing doubts as to her own sexuality, Adele hops into bed with the boy and (having found the experience wanting) dumps him immediately after. Marot’s graphic novel does contain this particular chain of events but Marot makes it clear that it unravels over a period of at least six months in which the Adele character is slowly worn down by heteronormative peer pressure only for this pressure to be immediately replaced by that of the boyfriend’s desire to have sex. Marot shows us the passage of time and how the pressure to be like everyone else can wear you down and force you to act against your own nature. Kechiche shows us no passage of time at all and so Adele appears to move in and out of heterosexuality almost on a whim. In fact, the way Kechiche films it, the entire first act could have taken place over the course of a weekend and that tells us nothing about Adele other than the fact that she is fickle and indecisive.
Equally problematic is Kechiche’s refusal to show us the passage of time in Adele and Emma’s relationship meaning that Adele seems to transform from a high school student living at home to a teacher living with Emma is the space of maybe two scenes. Having established that the pair are now living together, Kechiche shows us a dinner party at which Emma seems to be ignoring Adele and then moves us immediately on to the revelation that Adele slept with a man because she felt isolated and unloved. Marot’s original story spans over fifteen years including some very good times and some very bad times that explain not only why Emma and Adele might drift apart but also why Emma would react to the Adele character’s tortured infidelity with such a vicious outpouring of emotion. In the film, Adele’s infidelity appears to come from an evening of being ignored while Emma’s anger seems hypocritical if not outright tactical given that we know that she dumped another woman to be with Adele and appeared to be eyeing up her next sexual partner. By showing us the passage of time and how little emotions grow into big emotions when repeated down through the years, Marot fleshes out her characters and makes the ebb and flow of their love seem entirely real. By refusing to show us anything other than emotions frozen in time, Kechiche makes it look as though his characters are entirely at the mercy of transient emotion, that they are fickle, moody, irrational, and entirely without depth. This also explains why the sex scenes are so profoundly problematic.
Maroh’s response to the film draws a link between the pornographic sex and a scene in which a boorish male character talks at length about the fact that women have better orgasms than men and how this makes female sexuality sacred. Clearly, this is abject (and I would argue intentional) nonsense as the scene in which the character delivers his speech is also used to demonstrate the growing distance between Emma the Parisian artist and Adele the suburban primary school teacher. However, the reason the speech and the sex scenes loom so large in the foreground of the film is that they are about as close as Kechiche gets to explicitly articulating what is going on in his characters’ heads. We may speculate about why Adele decided to cheat on Emma and why Emma decided to take an interest in another woman but we know for certain that Adele didn’t enjoy sex with boys and did enjoy sex with Emma and so Adele’s need to retain access to a reliable source of orgasms can be seen as the real motivation behind everything she does. Kechiche invites us to latch onto the sex and the orgasms because he shows us the sex and the orgasms but does not show us the months of peer pressure or the years of growing alienation at the heart of an otherwise loving couple. If the only thing we know for sure about Adele is that she really likes to cum, why shouldn’t we leap to the conclusion that this is all she wants from life?
Blue is the Warmest Colour is a poorly directed film because, despite being a film about the emotional lives of women, it systematically fails to convey the depths and nuances of those lives to the audience. The question of how problematic this film actually is depends on the level of competence that you ascribe to Kechiche: On the one hand, he attempted to engage with a group of characters and failed to gain access to their inner lives because he couldn’t find the right cinematic language in which to do so. On the other hand, he engaged with a group of characters and successfully depicted them as child-like hollow vessels whose inner lives are exhausted by sexual desire and domestic status anxiety. In other words, Kechiche is either a good-hearted incompetent or a talented director with some supremely fucked up ideas about the inner lives of women. Either way, giving such a man the Palme D’Or can only be seen as a terrible mistake.