music friday: charlotte caffey
why i left my ballot blank for president

blue is the warmest color (abdellatif kechiche, 2013)

It’s the movie with explicit lesbian sex, simulated but close enough to cause an uproar and to forever mark the film, no matter its other qualities. It won multiple awards, including two at Cannes. It got almost universal good reviews (“a masterpiece ... and the most emotionally moving film to come along in years”). One of the two leads, Léa Seydoux, was a future Bond Girl. It’s three hours long, and only 15 minutes or so constitute the famous sex scenes. It almost seems that there’s no need to see a film like this ... you may feel you know it just based on the hype.

But you would be missing at least one great performance if you passed, and acting always needs to be experienced ... you can’t just read about it. The actress in question is Adèle Exarchopoulos, and she was 18 when the movie was filmed. Her character, also named Adèle, is in every scene. She is a marvel. Kechiche works hard to disguise the fairly ordinary basic plot of Blue Is the Warmest Color: girl meets woman, girl and woman fall in love, girl and woman fall apart, life goes on. The explicit sex makes the movie seem more extraordinary than it is, but Adèle Exarchopoulos is what really raises the picture above clichés. She is completely believable in a naturalistic way ... she carries the film. This is not to take away from the work of Léa Seydoux, who is also very good as Emma. But what makes Blue Is the Warmest Color compulsively watchable is Exarchopoulos.

And it’s a good thing, because, besides the rather mundane plot, there is a problem, and it lies in those sex scenes. Kechiche may want to normalize lesbian sex by giving us a detailed, honest representation of it, but even at its most erotic, there is a feeling that Kechiche’s idea of the erotic is too driven by the male gaze. We are essentially invited to enjoy these two women having sex, and it’s a fine line between the voyeurism that suggests and the ways sex helps the women discover who they are. It’s Adèle’s coming of age story. Her growth as a person, which comes in part from her sexual relationship with Emma, is the key to the film. But too often the sex we see on the screen has an element of “Woo Hoo!” to it that is distracting at best.

Early in the film, Adèle describes a book she is reading for a class, The Life of Marianne by Pierre de Marivaux. “He explores sentiments but gets under her skin.” This could describe Kechiche in Blue Is the Warmest Color. He is interested enough in his characters and their “sentiments” to spend three hours presenting them to us. But his way of getting under their skin, as if we need the man to explain the women, feels off. And there are enough stories about the discomfort Seydoux and Exarchopoulos felt while making the movie to make us question the methods for making the film. (In fairness, both actresses say they formed a great friendship during the making of the movie.)

Then again, directors demanding greatness from their actors is nothing new. And perhaps I make too much of this, since the result on the screen, despite my misgivings, is strong. Right now, I could watch three hours of Exarchopoulos in anything, and if she rightfully deserves credit for her great performance, at least a little credit must go to the director who elicited that performance. #232 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.