Blue Is The Warmest Color: The Male Gaze Reigns Supreme

The top Google search related to director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color is “Blue is the Warmest Color Sex.” The film’s sex scenes earned it an NC-17 rating in the United States, and video upload sites are now ripe with compilations of the film’s most graphic moments, easier to consume for those whose interest in the film does not include the plot. Maybe it is telling that lesbian movies are usually a Herculean task to procure in their full form, but all too easy to find as prolifically uploaded sex scene super-cuts. It doesn’t take an art history major to tell you about the history of female bodies being objectified and commodified, but if you’re looking for a primer in all the ways that modern media is still failing queers, this film is a good start.

I watched Blue with as blank a slate as I could muster. Of course I had already heard the extensive buzz, partly because I am obsessed with queer narratives in any form, partly because my social media network fits the exact niche that would want to inject all kinds of meaning into a ten minute lesbian sex scene. I had heard the film described over and over again as an experience, one I would come away from with a sense of emotional and psychological exhaustion. I was ready to be moved by something groundbreaking. You can only imagine my disappointment.

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 I am sad to report that I was underwhelmed and uncomfortable, and all too familiar with the tropes at play, none of them creatively handled. At a bloated 2 hours and 53 minutes, one wonders if there were any limitations placed on Kechiche’s vision, and if the film might have improved had someone taken him aside at some point and given him a lesson in the more harmful ways that one can portray a queer person. Or maybe, as Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel upon which the film was based, has lamented, the film ultimately suffered from a lack of queer advisory. “It appears to me that this was what was missing on the set: lesbians.”

Adèle is a high school junior newly arrived in her teenage sexuality. Her single encounter with a teenage boy is a sex scene that would be graphic to many American viewers, and yet we are meant to understand from her expressions that she is disinterested, distant, even bored. So this is tame, we think. The passion is to come. And thus we encounter one of many tropes of the lesbian film: The obligatory sex scene in which the character who will later find homosexual love must first dabble in heterosexual intercourse, where we get to witness their boredom, their awkwardness, the obviousness of their discomfort in this event. You’ve seen it many times before. The scene is meant to stand in contrast to the later sexual encounters with Emma, and yet this seems the least rehearsed of those scenes, the least choreographed and mechanical and voyeuristic.

And why wouldn’t it be? The vision of this film comes from a straight male director whose uncomfortable consumption of the actresses’ bodies is hardly subtle. Heterosexual intercourse would be the easiest for the male gaze responsible for the film to portray and naturalize. In Kechiche’s film, heterosexual intercourse doesn’t occupy the same lofty pedestal of lesbian intercourse, where the female form, untouched by maleness, preserved as “pure” by lesbianism, is seen as sacred and mystical. If you don’t believe me, wait until the scene where the man is giving a lecture to a group of women on the mysterious power of the female orgasm in art. Of course the sole straight sex scene of the movie seems like the most realistic, the most casual and banal. Lesbianism via Kechiche is incapable of being casual. Its intensity is all-consuming, inhumanly magnetic. And as far as I can see, that in itself is a problematic framework for a straight man’s portrayal of a queer narrative.

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Of course, I’m already doing a disservice to the film by using the term lesbian. Adèle’s story is infinitely more complex than the “lesbian coming-of-age narrative” it has been labeled, more often than not by people who would not have to be familiar with a history of queer filmmaking. Critics who refer to the character as a lesbian are mistaken, although I don’t blame them for not realizing that, given the way mainstream media portrays lesbian-identified women. Adèle is not a lesbian, or at least she never identifies herself as one, and one would say that her actions throughout the film don’t suggest she is monosexual at the very least. She is queer in some capacity, though, but this is not a term I would expect to crop up in the film. It seems a case of erasure to call Adèle a lesbian, when her multiple experiences with men seem equally legitimate to her experience with Emma.

Kechiche has not created a film about ambiguous sexuality, though, or one where the characters’ relationship remains unlabeled and artistically chalked up to the blindness or unpredictability of love. On the contrary, Emma is very firm in her sexuality, clearly stating her preference for women, only being shown in sexual situations with women. Emma is disappointed when Adèle hides her relationship from her family, and later from her coworkers, as Emma has always been confident in her identity. Her sexuality is tied to her art and her place as an artist, to which I can only say, “But, of course.” I’m sure Mr. Kechiche desired to make a point about how Emma is able to feel more comfortable in her identity and her work because she comes from the place of an artist, but I’m less sure that he knew the more dangerous trope he was playing into in such a portrayal. Queer sexuality, particularly female queer sexuality, is all too familiar with the caricature of the enlightened and liberated artist, the ties between that caricature and the idea of lesbianism as sexual experimentation. Of course, the trope implies, the artist is a lesbian, because she has the time and the liberal worldview to “play” in such realms, and alternative sexuality is a thing that belongs to people of privilege, people of impractical careers and creative mindsets. It can only be playtime to those who aspire to be teachers rather than professors, whose class level has them searching for practicality in their lives, whose narrative is bookmarked by men.

Which brings us to what boring narrative, exactly? Adele’s romance with Emma is framed by heterosexual relationships. Heavily implied or not, it seems an awful lot like the classic case of the experimental dalliance with the liberated artiste. The film ends with Adele being chased by a man who we assume will catch up, a man who flirted with her at a party and asked her what it was like with women, if it was more gentle. I thought that Kechiche would be aware of the fact that this man is “that guy” and everyone hates “that guy,” but “that guy” appears to end the film rewarded by the implied romance of Adele. And if that is the case, what a sad and limiting narrative Kechiche is promoting, consciously or not. Perhaps if we’d focused more time on the daily relationship of the two women, rather than close shots of Adele’s underage parts or the prescriptive too-long sex scenes, we would have been able to better understand the passion between these two women, and why it was much more than that implied dalliance. blue-is-the-warmest-color-pictures-1 Julie Maroh has weighed in on the adaptation, and her comments concerning its sex scenes stood out to me. “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 made me feel very ill at ease.” All I could think as I watched the scenes was that there were not two people fucking because they were desperately, even harmfully, in love. It looked like two women fucking in a way that would be stimulating to a viewer with little expectation for queer intercourse. It didn’t look like a young woman discovering the body of her partner for the first time. It didn’t look like an experienced partner relearning passion in the arms of her new lover. The voyeuristic angles, the awkward and choreographed movements, and all of them made me feel uneasy, unable to forget the directorial eye, and, quite frankly, bored. I feel sorry for those straight individuals who thought they were about to see something scandalous. Besides Kechiche’s somewhat clunky fetish for women’s asses, there’s little here that would shock your average Crash Pad viewer.

I expected something titillating, and did not find it. Is this still an important movie? Well, in some ways, yes. There are moments of aesthetic beauty that are worthy of applause. The film is about a woman, and she is a queer woman, and that is groundbreaking in 2013, unfortunately or not. Yet its overwhelmingly positive reception reminded me of Brokeback Mountain‘s debut, when the queers watched quietly as the critics stumbled over themselves to praise the performances of two straight actors succeeding in the “difficulty” of a gay role. Queerness as portrayed by straight people, as envisioned by straight people and directed by straight people, is Oscar bait. Brokeback Mountain isn’t an example of gay cinema anymore than Blue is the Warmest Color is an example of lesbian cinema, and I’m sorry if that comes as a shock to you. A narrative about queer people as directed and portrayed and produced by straight people cannot be considered a work of queer cinema in the same sense that a film written, directed, and portrayed by queer people is.

Do I sound like a cranky queer? I’m sure I do, especially to the devout fans of this film who include top critics and acclaimed filmmakers. I think I’ve become very sick of this continual settling for something subpar in queer portrayals in film, especially when it’s a straight male filmmaker, especially when I’m being made to feel gratitude for the bare appearance of a queer story, and most especially when the film receives widespread praise. Many of the comments about this film have mentioned the fact that it doesn’t matter that the narrative is about two women, because love is universal and the story is telling a universal story. But it does matter, because queer stories are still different than heterosexual stories. They are different in very important and unforgettable ways, and to dismiss that fact, to say as the director has that the issue of class is more important than the issue of queerness, is ignorant on a number of levels. Queer stories can be universal, but they should still be told differently, and by the people who intimately know them.

Full-time writer, part-time lover, freelancing in fancy cheese and cider.

Kate has written 131 articles for us.

199 Comments

  1. No matter what she says about the “blank slate,” the reviewer’s deep misunderstanding of the movie started before she went to see it: She was going for a “queer narrative,” thus narrowing her own perception to the thinnest slit. The power of “Blue…” is in its universality – it’s a movie about love as a cosmic collusion, an experience that can shoot you out into the stars and than drop you back on the ground, breaking your entire being into small pieces that can’t ever be fitted back together again. And I have to say, the director has mastered this Shakespearean with an incredibly artistry. It doesn’t matter whether the heroines are the same sex, opposite, reversed, or whatever. It is too bad that many people, not just Kate, failed to understand the complixity and nuances of this movie.

    • True!

      I was so pleased at work. I work in tech… lots of guys… lots of close mindedness sometimes.

      10 of us or so went to lunch and I had the most satisfying discussion about the film. They all saw it! Some with their wives, others with their friends, and they all really enjoyed it. Most of them said they had forgotten the movie was depicting two women and we all discussed the performances and the universal themes and some of the nuances of the directing.

      One guy even joked that the scene at the restaurant reminded him of a moment with his ex girlfriend except he was Adele. And that he said a tear.

      So I commend any movie that can drum up this kind of reaction across a broad spectrum of people and cultures and sexual orientations.

  2. I was avoiding seeing this, but a friend of mine wanted to. So yesterday, 4 of us went to see it.

    My wife and I thought certain parts of the sex scene were funny (e.g., how quickly they moved their arses)but otherwise a lot of it seemed pretty realistic for early relationship enthusiasm. Reminded me of when we’d have sex four or five times in a day…

    I also recognised some of the positions as ones we do. So overall, not all that unrealistic. Probably the most realistic I’ve seen in a film.

    I’m too late to the party and too lazy to write out much of my criticisms of this review, but I definitely agree with some of the dissenters about this film. I think it’s pretty clear she doesn’t like guys.

  3. I disagree with this review and how this film is being presented. Its transcendental filmmaking. It took a simple coming of age story and turned it into something powerful and deeply moving by not pandering to convention. It is so realistic in its depiction of life. Every scene felt real. Its a difficult film to approach but if you invest the time and allow it to simmer slowly…by the end you feel you have experienced something really special. The film perfectly captures the beauty of sex and love. Its actual power did not hit me until the second half. Suddenly all the scenes before it started coming together. We get such a full understanding of Adele as a character and as a human being. I love the little moments in the film, like when Adele tries to keep up her appearance by fixing her hair or putting on nail polish even though she is falling apart inside. Subtle character developments like that really brought this film alive.

    As, a lesbian..I connected completely with this film. I felt like my life story was being presented onscreen. I saw myself in both characters. I have been there: where love changes the course of your life. I do not think if this film was about a heterosexual relationship would it have resonated with me as deeply as it did. I have never connected with a film in this way even lesbian films made by lesbians. My friend scott, who is a straight male told me that the film opened his eyes to the powerful connection two women can have.

    By focusing so much on the gender of the director and the sexuality of the actresses you are narrowing your vision. You are forgetting that they are still WOMEN. And they contribute immensely to the success of this film. Adele is in almost every scene adding depthness rarely achieved. With Lea right there next to her. Who can understand women and the love they share better than women?

    And about the sex scenes. They must be viewed within the context of the film. Looking at the first long sex scene within the context of the film, I hope I dont have too many spoilers here but Adele is pretty much lost and confused during the first half of the film. Shes the kindof girl that has trouble expressing her emotions. Shes deeply troubled by the fact that she cant find men attractive. Then she meets Emma and her world shifts. She said in one scene that she loves to consume everything. So the sex scenes are about consumption, excitement, discovery. FINALLY she has found the connection she was looking for so it makes sense that she dives head first into it. It fits her character and it perfectly captures the craziness and high one feels with first love. You want to explore and understand every inch of your lovers body. Its passionate, all consuming love that changes you forever. Finally Adele can express all those desires that she has kept hidden for so long. Finally, she is free. THAT is why I found the scenes realistic because I know what that feels like – that is MY story. HOW is THAT NOT a Queer experience?

    Just my impressions of the film and my opinion BUT I HAD to share them.

  4. A disappointing, retrograde, propagandistic review like something out of Socialist Realism. The reviewer impugns any viewer’s lesbian bona fides if she likes the film. However, many other comments on this site attest wonderfully and exuberantly to the diversity of viewpoints and thoughtfulness of myriad readers. Hooray for that.

    This film was profoundly effective. It blew me away. It reflected much of my life. Does that make me less “queer” than the reviewer? Richard Brody (oops, male) noted on his New Yorker blog : “Soon enough, Emma shows up and protects Adèle (claiming that they’re cousins). Thus their romance begins and with it the movie’s great question: What does it mean to be gay without participating in gay culture? Or, rather, is there such a thing as gay culture that differs from homosexuality itself? Does the physical and psychological fact of homosexuality entail a distinctive place in society?”

    Good questions worth pondering.

    As much as it was visceral to identify with the film, it was also monumental to get OUT of my own experience. Is this not was cinema is for? Do we only want an endless cycle of mediocre movies that ” show our lives.”?

    It is important today attention to how carefully, critically and lovingly the camera examines many different factors in the lives of the characters in Lilles. Note the seemingly accepted ethnic diversity of the students, yet note the virulent lesbophobia of Adele’s so called (white) girlfriends.

    Of course, the cliche’s were ridiculous, including the oysters, bit this voracious commenter gulped down three with a glass of bubbly after the film as an homage.

    The graphic novel was excellent. This film was not a remake of it. It was a riff on it, if you will the graphic novel could have been, and still could be, made into an animated film, after all.

    In closing, I now envision a fabulous double bill of all the episodes of Orange is the New Black and Blue is the Warmest Color. Neither was available to me when I was a 20-something beginner in the 70s. I am happy to be alive to revel in this time, with a heart, soul,and libido of a young, notorious lesbian in an aging body.

  5. The author talks about how this film is the media “failing” lesbians and throws support behind the lesbian author of the graphic novel. In case she didn’t read the graphic novel aside from watching the film, she would know that the lesbian has one of the characters DIE, which is not serving the LGBT community or showing any positive representation. At least director Kechiche was smart enough to give the character an open-ended potential future. Just because there weren’t lesbians involved does not mean this stor was not told in a realistic and beautiful way. These actresses gave all they had to play these characters and should be commended.

    I think it’s hilarious that the author is so obsessed with the “male perspective” with respect to this story and the sex scenes. I wonder if she knwos that the actresses were co-creators on this project and improvised most of what is onscreen, including the sex scenes. These scenes mostly came from women. As a woman who loves women, I had no problems with these sex scenes nor did I think there was anything misogynistic at hand. This is a man who chose to make a story about two women in love and did these characters justice, portraying the rich and complex layers of love that can exist in any relationship, gay, straight, or otherwise. The author seems to miss the point that this is a story that is universal and audiences of all stripes don’t focus on the orientation of its characters because the point isn’t to be a lesbian movie, it’s to tell a story about the nature of love, and that is something all people have in common. He doesn’t have to cater to anyone elses viewpoint. “Desert Hearts” also had lengthy sex scenes that were shocking to people only that was directed by a woman. People weren’t up in arms accusing her of the “female gaze”. He’s a male director, obviously it’s told through his perspective, but he allows these women to exist and breathe on screen in an honest way, largely through scenes they created. Sex is part of love, this is also a story about a young woman’s sexual discovery and realization. Such typical pseudo-puritanical nonsense so rife in our culture with respect to freaking out over seeing sex or nudity (gasp).

    As for her notion that such stories should be told by lesbians and those who know them, does this apply to other groups? Movies are fabrications. They are often told by directors and writers very different from the characters they create, this doesn’t invalidate them or spell doom for those stories. It’s a fiction. It’s unfortunate that people have chosen to politicize a movie that is not about politics. That is a strength of the film, it doesn’t obsess over their orientation and just lets them be two people in love. I am fine with that. This film isn’t anyone’s spokesperson. It’s not about that.

  6. Sigh.

    I don’t know if anybody besides myself is still kicking around on this post, but I just FINALLY got around to seeing BItWC and I have a lot of feelings. By the way, there will be SPOILERS AHEAD, so be forewarned.

    Sigh. I’m so ambivalent about this movie! Let’s start with the things I liked:

    1. Adele at the party, Adele teaching, Adele fighting with Emma, Adele talking to Emma in the café up until the awkward public fingering, Adele walking away from the gallery alone. The simple fact that it’s a “queer movie” starring two women!

    Now onto things I didn’t like:

    1. Everything else.

    Seriously. The sex scenes felt incredibly artificial, painfully voyeuristic, and, quite frankly, boring. Adele’s character felt utterly “blah.” Emma, meanwhile, is a pretentious slut-shaming asshat. The movie ran on much longer than it needed to. The director’s “analysis” of class is ham-handed at best.

    Maybe I’m the only one, but I got almost no sense of chemistry between Adele and Emma. Like, none. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief that these were anything but two very straight actresses throughout most of the film. In fact, Adele’s flirtations with the second boy she sleeps with felt so much more “real” than every kiss she shares on screen with Emma that it left me feeling kind of empty inside. That’s how the “lesbian content” of this film felt to me: it felt empty.

    Kate’s analysis of Brokeback Mountain really struck a chord with me, and I think it applies equally well to this movie. “Queerness as portrayed by straight people, as envisioned by straight people and directed by straight people.” And while I don’t think that it’s inherently problematic to have a straight male direct a movie about queer women, I definitely think this movie IS problematic for that reason.

    Everything I’ve read about Kechiche’s behavior behind the scenes rings as atrocious. First, can we talk about the authorial decision to CHANGE THE NAME of the character to the name of the actress playing her? Can we talk about how that is creepy as fuck? And can we talk about how retitling the film “La Vie d’Adèle” makes it infinitely creepier? It’s like Kechiche is saying, “Let’s pretend that the character you’re playing is yourself and that this movie is your life. Now let’s film you naked for six hours straight having terrible simulated sex with another woman!”

    Second of all, Léa Seydoux calls the filming of the sex scenes “humiliating,” and implies that Kechiche wanted to change the name of her character from Emma to “Léa” as well. WTF? Like, can someone explain to me how this ISN’T creepy as fuck? Kechiche apparently made them repeat scenes over and over again, all in the name of “realism.” Then why does this movie feel anything but “real?”

    If we’re retitling things around here, Kechiche, might I suggest: “Two Thin Conventionally Attractive Able-Bodied Straight White Cis Girls Pretend to Fall in Love While I Watch?”

    In short, I do think men (even straight men) can succeed at producing queer content. Would I name this film as an example? Absolutely not.

    And am I the only one who got very little from Adele’s character? She just seems so “blah” throughout most of the film. She comes alive in scenes where she teaches, and in scenes where she cries. That’s about it, to my eyes. And what does she do with Emma other than 1. have sex, 2. fight, and 3. hang around being conventionally attractive?

    I am frustrated with the “mystical magical lesbianation thing,” where sapphic love is presented as inherently all-consuming, sparkly and captivating to the exclusion of all else. I mean, I get it. Adele’s and Emma’s love is supposed to be the all consuming kind. Theirs is supposed to be a passionate, torrid, first-love kind of thing. But if that’s what your movie is trying to accomplish, you had damn well better make the passion on screen convincing. And, as mentioned above, I think the film failed to do so.

    I am frustrated to see straight ladies playing queer ladies in the same way I’m frustrated when I see cis ladies playing trans ladies (just stop!). I’m frustrated that this film managed to be both in my mind voyeuristic and boring. Yes, this movie has its wonderful scenes. They are powerful and moving and they held my attention. But on the whole, I can’t help but feel disappointed.

    And hey, if you enjoyed this movie, felt it was genuine, got a lot from it, I’m glad for you! I really wanted to be one of you! And I hope no one feels like I’m trying to convince you that you ought to dislike this movie if you liked it. I simply needed to vent my feels as one of the queer women who apparently didn’t like the film quite so much.

    I will say this much. I remember when I was a baby queermo, back when I first saw “Brokeback Mountain” alone in my room, on my computer. I fell in love with it, because I was so hungry for anything that even seemed like real love between two queers to enter my life. Sure, one of them died in the end, but at least it was something! It was only years later, once the dust had cleared, and I watched the movie with new eyes, that I realized the extent to which it wasn’t made for me.

  7. SPOILERS!

    Finally saw the film.

    I was hesitant.

    Due to this review (which I appreciated! even if I don’t necessarily agree), and a lot of the comments on this review, and a lot of the other negative reviews, and the conflict between Lea/Adele and the director (which was disappointing)… this movie just had a lot of external brouhaha.

    But I finally sat down and watched and braced myself and… I absolutely loved the film. I was shocked by how much I appreciated it despite everyone else’s opinion.

    On one hand, I hate that the two actresses seemed to have had such a negative experience dealing with the director. he seems like a slave driver when it comes to “his vision” and that behavior is inexcusable (but pretty common among directors), but I truly enjoyed the performances.

    Regarding the sex scenes and the voyeuristic “male gaze” claims.

    The movie seemed to be about “bodies” and “flesh” and “rawness” in general. I think of Roland Barthes and the Herbert album “Bodily Functions”. Zero makeup. Zero film score. Extreme closeups throughout everyday minutiae, including the shower and bus rides and looking and looking . Snot. Tears. Chomping down a bolognese sloppily, but enthralliningly.

    So for me, the sex scenes being graphic and as raw as possible makes sense. Them being erratic and exceptionally intense in juxtaposition to Adele’s usual aloofness and Emma’s stoicism was an important part of the storytelling. The sex scenes were how we saw just how desperately Adele needed, wanted, and desired Emma. That was her happiness. That was where she felt unadulterated and free (not writing or painting). And that’s what a first intense love is all about. You’re totally consumed by the other person. She even says that in the movie during a scene that probably wedged them further apart.

    So I was disappointed in all of the male gaze and “too graphic sex” talk. The movie was subtle and real and showcased excellent performances.

    Also regarding “male gaze,” what makes Tasya Van Ree, Jenna Elizabeth, and Ellen Von Unwerth any different than let’s say Terry Richardson.

    In all fairness, all four of them have a similar perspective when it comes to shooting female bodies and bodies in general. They all want to illicit something similar, and that thing seems to be provocation and sensuality.

    I personally love all four, but the arguments I hear against Terry Richardson seem hypocritical, when the same person approves of Ellen Von Unwerth.

    Sometimes I feel as though some criticisms are cherry picked and made into something they’re not with an intent to utterly invalidate. And I respect all opinions, that’s just mine.

  8. “Of course, the trope implies, the artist is a lesbian, because she has the time and the liberal worldview to “play” in such realms, and alternative sexuality is a thing that belongs to people of privilege, people of impractical careers and creative mindsets.” Not to sound rude or anything, but this is a whole new level of reaching.

  9. A thousand times YES to this piece. My favorites are below. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    “Queerness as portrayed by straight people, as envisioned by straight people and directed by straight people, is Oscar bait. Brokeback Mountain isn’t an example of gay cinema anymore than Blue is the Warmest Color is an example of lesbian cinema, and I’m sorry if that comes as a shock to you. A narrative about queer people as directed and portrayed and produced by straight people cannot be considered a work of queer cinema in the same sense that a film written, directed, and portrayed by queer people is.”

    and

    “But it does matter, because queer stories are still different than heterosexual stories. They are different in very important and unforgettable ways, and to dismiss that fact, to say as the director has that the issue of class is more important than the issue of queerness, is ignorant on a number of levels. Queer stories can be universal, but they should still be told differently, and by the people who intimately know them.”

  10. I’ve watched recently , I don’t know وbut I feel like all the movie has the same story I saw the adele in denial I mean she’s like discovering herself till she met the girl with blue hear they live a good time together, but again adele still roaming around herself , like I want a man no I want her back anyway it’s in my favorite lesbian movies which they are few , I need to watch more movies anyone can suggest to me a good one? thank you for the post.

  11. I just recently saw this movie. Kate’s review was right on. I am not as eloquent as her, but this movie sucked, it was boring, long winded, the sex scenes also pretty boring. The two actresses had no chemistry,and all the eating with open mouths, and tears, and runny noses.Gross! I love a good foreign film, but this is not one. I discovered Netflix is streaming it, if you must see this horrible movie.

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