Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Stars: Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux
Running time: 179 minutes (but it doesn't feel that long)
Blue Is the Warmest Color is so much more than sex and scandal—despite the fact that all the press around the movie says otherwise. Rated NC-17 in the United States, the French lesbian love story, which is moreso a portait of the life of its lead Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), has been sullied by jabs exchanged between the film's crew. Director Abdellatif Kechiche even went so far as to threaten a lawsuit against his outspoken star Léa Seydoux, who denounced her and co-star Exarchopoulos' experience working with him as torture.
While the film deserves all the attention it can get, it's a shame that what truly merits the film's Cannes Palme d'Or win is getting lost in the allegations. Out in select U.S. theaters today (except in Idaho, where it's been banned), its strength is its abilty to hold a mirror up to any viewer who's ever experienced love and heartbreak. A credit to expert directing, storytelling, and phenomenal acting, the film will pick at your scabs and uncover old scars that you've long thought faded away.
In hopes to remind moviegoers of the art buried beneath the behind-the-scenes bombs miring the masterpiece, Complex's Pop Culture staff writer Tara Aquino and associate editor Ross Scarano, are here to praise the most controversial movie of the year.
Ross Scarano: I saw the movie two weeks ago, and I'm still thinking about it. Of course, I've been trying to write about it, and it's still getting talked about in the media, so both of those things help fuel my thinking. But there's something specific about the way certain scenes are lodged in my head. I've felt this before, and know it to be a rare and special movie-watching feeling.
Tara Aquino: I've seen it twice and the second viewing just made me appreciate its intricacies even more. It definitely sticks with you. For me, that's mostly because it forces introspection, whether you want to or not.
Ross: Me too. It took me back to my first breakup in remarkably visceral ways. A lot of the praise I've seen for the film focuses on the first hour, how well it captures first love and Adèle's identity conflicts, and while I couldn't agree more about how great those scenes are, the breakup hit me square in the chest. What do you think the film does best? What makes it work?
Tara: What I think the film does best is capturing that insatiable desire that comes with first love. That hunger, that feeling that this is the end-all-be-all. That uncontrollable urge to latch onto the idea of this person, this love. And how fucking hard it is to separate yourself from that.
Ross: Hunger is maybe the biggest word to fixate on when talking about the movie. Nobody told me how much the movie would be about food. So many important scenes of characterization accomplished with food. When Adèle stress eats the candy bar. When the boy she fools around with thinks she might want some dainty food like a waffle or crêpe, and Adèle is like, "Fuck that. Gimme a gyro."
She eventually tells Emma that she's voracious. But we already know that by then.
Tara: Which makes me think of the way sex is used in the film. Adèle and Emma devour each other in those scenes. And Adèle can't get enough of it, just like she says she can't stop eating, and that worries her. Which is so key when you think about the movie as a whole. Even when the honeymoon phase of their relationship is over, Adèle keeps trying to have sex with Emma, while Emma's disinterested. And at the end, she's basically eating Emma's hand in the cafe, trying to get her fill while trying to remind Emma of how good she is.
Ross: The sex scenes definitely seem insatiable. But they also made me laugh, and not in an uncomfortable way, I don't think. The movie is full of moments without dialogue, where you just get to watch Adèle's face. But the sex scenes felt weird without dialogue, and I think it's because the closeups are gone there. So much of the early parts of the movie are about discovery, but the sex scenes lacked that for me. This applies to the sex scene with the boy, too.
The sex scene that felt most of a piece with the movie, in terms of content and the way it was shot, was the sex they have at Emma's house, where they talk and joke with each other right after. That scene returned the camera to the faces of the actresses, which is something largely absent from the earlier sex scenes, where their full bodies are on display.
Tara: The sex in the beginning was just feeding this lust. It wasn't love yet. It was quenching their attraction to each other. The first time they do talk during sex, it's at Emma's home. They're comfortable enough for her to come over, and Emma calls her "my love." Right after that is when the film fast forwards in time. It was like the peak of the honeymoon phase.
In the sex scene with the boy, I got the sense that she was doing it to do it. Doing it because she thought that's what was expected of her. There's so many shots of her looking so lost—and this is in praise of Exarchopoulos's performance. She can't quite reconcile her personal life with the life she thought she was supposed to want. You can see that in the way she gives in to her friends urging her to date Thomas, and later on, when she can't join her life as a teacher, with her colleagues, and her life with Emma.
Adèle keeps relying on other people to make her feel secure, even in the most extreme ways, and ultimately it's about coming into her own. Trusting herself and who she is enough, and realizing that she can and should define herself.
Ross: I think the movie needs sex scenes, I'm just not sure that it needs those sex scenes. But the sex scenes ultimately comprise only a little bit of what is a very long, sprawling movie. I think the way the movie deals with this big chunk of time, how casually it moves the viewer through years without resorting to title cards or anything obvious, is really impressive.
Tara: Right. It does and doesn't. In the same way as the 45-minute violent, destructive duel in Man of Steel. That fight is necessary to the story, but the length checks you out of it. But maybe that's me being American and not accustomed to being confronted with this kind of portrayal of sexuality.
Ross: Yeah, though given the response the movie has received, more than just Americans are reacting to the sex scenes. I think a large part of the reaction to the sex scenes is because the director is an older man, so there are questions of the male gaze and exploitation.
I don't think the conversation would've gone in this direction (and I don't think these are unreasonable requests) had there been a woman behind the camera. Or a lesbian working with the straight actresses during the sex scene shoot. (And I understand how problematic it is to reduce a culture into a lone individual functioning as a consultant during a sex scene. But I think what we do have—older straight man, two young straight women—is more problematic potentially.)
Tara: Of course not. An older straight man directing two young women in a scene like this is inherently problematic. But I think it's beside the point in any situation to judge whether or not sex looks real. As someone who identifies as part of the LGBT community, I don't think it's a misrepresentation at all, in any way. It takes away from the message of the movie, that love is love and experiences of love are universal regardless of orientation, to focus on such sexual-orientation specific things. It's counter-intuitive.
Ross: Good point. And ultimately that theme is what makes the movie work, that's how a straight person, or a gay man, can enter the story. And yes, whether or not something looks "real" is silly. What does that mean? We're talking about a work of fiction, none of it's "real." The sex, as shown, works in terms of the movie's exploration of voracious hunger. And because of that, you have to conclude that the sex scenes work. They work in the context of the narrative, and ultimately that's the only reality that anything on screen needs to report to.
Tara: Yes. Going back to what you said earlier, it's a shame that all of these little details, from their performance and chemistry to the way time moves so impressively, is overshadowed by the conversation about these sex scenes. But it's hard to talk about the movie without first defending it or not, because it has been talked about so damn much. Echoing the sentiment that a bunch of people have said about this movie, I want people to see it because it is so important and eye-opening. In the context of what's going on right now, especially, it's so important. You and I have been talking about it for weeks. It's proof of its power.
Ross: It's fucking exhausting to have to defend it, or qualify what you're saying about it in relation to the bad press. At this point, all the press around this movie from the stars, and director, especially, needs to stop so people can just watch it. I was going to write that no one should have to defend it. But that's not quite right. If you see the movie, you have to talk about the male gaze. But the movie's successes so far outweigh however many mostly gratuitous shots of Adèle's butt are included.