Blue Is the Warmest Color has the distinction of being one of the year’s best films, as well as the most contentious. There seems to be no way to discuss the it without tackling the epic controversy that has plagued this Palme d’Or winning drama.
The brilliant three-hour French film about first love between two young women already packed heat due to the extended, meticulous love scenes that will court an NC-17 rating when it hits theaters this Friday. Some critics were quick to cry out “voyeurism.”
To add fuel to the fire, the film’s two leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, told The Daily Beast in September about the grueling working conditions under director Abdellatif Kechiche, whose extensive shooting (10 days on the graphic sex scenes), demands for naturalism and (reportedly) short fuse made them forsake ever working with him again.
That interview sparked a witch-hunt, with every report thereafter probing further into the less flattering experiences on the film, provoking the tensions between the director and his stars. If there is hostility, the American media is as culpable for fanning the flames as any of the film’s main players.
“He will not take notes. He didn’t meet lesbians. He doesn’t try to be close to reality.” — Léa Seydoux
This is the context in the back of my mind as I tippy-toe my way into a hotel room to discuss Blue Is the Warmest Color with Seydoux and Exarchopoulos during the Toronto International Film Festival. The girls are understandably exhausted, but also relaxed, lounging on couches looking for comfort wherever it could be found. They're also jovial, warm, and generous with their answers, but noticeably careful after their initiation to the ways of the media.
What immediately strikes me is how good-humored, intelligent and frank Seydoux and Exarchopoulos are, and with their broken English, how easy it would be to manipulate their words. At one point, Seydoux launches into a description of Kechiche’s creative style and how he didn’t do any research for his depiction of two lesbians.
“He will not take notes. He didn’t meet lesbians. He doesn’t try to be close to reality,” says Seydoux, a description that could be immediately read as a knock against her director if you didn’t pay attention to her elaboration. “He’s in reality.”
Seydoux continues to describe Kechiche as a man who doesn’t imitate life but lives within it, creating reality in the moment while searching for humanity, even within those notoriously long sex scenes. “He’s just observing.”
“Kechiche tried to capture the mystery behind every woman,” adds Exarchopoulos, who describes the director as a “tortured, genius artist.” “The searching excites him,” she says.
As for the charges of voyeurism, the girls don’t think it’s so simple.
“He’s more intelligent than that,” says Exarchopoulos, who believes Kechiche just wasn’t satisfied with the same old two-minute movie sex scenes that are as meaningful as two minutes of sex. “He wants it to be visceral and organic.”
“I don’t think it’s voyeurism,” adds Seydoux, who understands that the act of looking is very much part of the film’s narrative. “I’m sure he wants to provoke a reaction from people. I don’t know if he wants people to feel embarrassed or to like it or be excited.”
The fact is, the sex scenes in the film are vital to a much larger discussion that also involves how we eat and behave in private and public circles—if you think the sex is gratuitous wait until you see the dinners. Blue Is the Warmest Color is about first love as much as it’s also about social barriers, cultural appropriation, and representation. These are conditions apparent within both the story and the filmmaking, where even Kechiche and his stars, as authors engaging in arms-length representation, become part of the narrative.
Throughout the film we see white people dancing to African or Arab music while very few Africans or Arabs make appearances in front of the camera. Meanwhile, a key plot point in the film involves Seydoux’s Emma, an artist who hails from a bourgeois lifestyle, using Exarchopoulos’ working-class Adele as a model for her paintings; representation across social boundaries within that very act. Seydoux agrees that the class tension between the characters is what ultimately dooms their love affair.
“It’s why they don’t communicate,” says Seydoux. “It’s about misunderstanding. What creates the distance is something unconscious: you’re social background. And that’s a very important thing. Even culture. Sometimes it’s difficult to have a real relationship with someone that has a culture very far from yours.”
We can only hope that after the epic controversy subsides and everyone actually sees the movie, discussion will gravitate towards the film’s intrinsic take on social concerns. Like Kubrick and Hitchcock before him, both of whom were unkind to certain female stars, director Abdellatif Kechiche is catching his fair share of grief. However, in the end, the work speaks for itself.
Blue Is the Warmest Color already claimed a spot in film history books, being the first lesbian drama to win the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos share that glory, as they became the first actors ever to be named along with their director as the winners of the Palme d’Or. There’s another cherry to that prize that Exarchopoulos only caught on to during our interview.
“Only three women got the Palme d’Or,” Seydoux points out. As Exarchopoulos looks over curiously as to who is on that short list, Seydoux elaborates: “Jane Campion. And us.”
Exarchopoulus cracks a huge, victorious grin that seems to make it all worthwhile.
Interview by Radheyan Simonpillai (@FreshandFrowsy)