Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) – Orgasms and Spaghetti Bolognese

BWC1The 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.

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The Cannes Film Festival Has a Duty to be Inclusive

If there is one thing that the Internet loves (aside from cat pictures and moral outrage) it is disagreeing with awards. Whenever an award is announced, you can guarantee that people will be on the internet within minutes registering their disgust and incredulity: ‘How could they give to prize to X’ they scream, ‘when Y was clearly the better novel/film/sex toy/advertisement for motor oil!’ Compared to other awards, the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or tends to come in for something of an easy ride as critics generally choose to celebrate the winners rather than grump about the losers. There are a number of reasons for this:

Firstly, even when the Cannes jury gets it wrong it generally does so for reasons that are quite interesting. For example, when the 2004 Jury chaired by Quentin Tarantino looked past such fantastic films as Olivier Assayas’s Clean, Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, Lucrecia Martel’s La Nina Santa, Paolo Sorrentino’s Le Conseguenze dell’Amore, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Sud Pralad in order to award the Palme to Michael Moore’s baggy, manipulative and self-indulgent political documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, people generally saw it as an entirely justifiable decision to channel the media interest generated by Cannes into an assault on the Bush regime and its dubious foreign policy.

Secondly, despite the medium of film being grotesquely over-represented in mainstream media, Cannes is really the only time when entertainment reporters focus their attentions solely on the world of art house film. Only too aware that this might be the only chance they get to push these films at a mainstream audience, film critics generally choose to downplay controversy and negativity in favour of celebrating the positive and so raising the mainstream profile of art house film.

Thirdly, unlike most awards that are given out retroactively to works released within a particular timeframe, the Palme d’Or is only awarded to films that are officially in competition at Cannes. What makes the competition so peculiar is that many of the films that are in competition at Cannes also premier at Cannes meaning that unless you happen to be in Cannes during the festival, chances are that you will not get to see any of the competing films until they are picked up for distribution. This quirk of administration means that anyone not at Cannes is effectively excluded from the conversation. Furthermore, the Cannes film festival only lasts about ten days meaning that most critics struggle to see all of the films in competition. Taken together, these two sets of considerations ensure that, come the end of the Cannes festival and the announcement of the Palme d’Or winner, almost nobody in the world has seen enough of the shortlist to be able to criticise the jury’s selection in any meaningful way.

These three barriers to criticism effectively ensure that all press coverage devoted to the Palme d’Or is either a series of uplifting platitudes about the wonders of art house film or objective and dispassionate reportage that a group of people watched a group of films and determined one film in particular to be better than the others. By and large, this media love-in works quite well as the increased visibility generated by Cannes and the Palme d’Or not only creates an international market for decidedly non-commercial films, it also provides producers with an opportunity to find people to distribute their films and thereby satisfy said international market. Unfortunately, it is precisely because Cannes plays this key role in determining which films achieve wider cinematic distribution that its selections must be scrutinised and its juries held to account.

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