At the Brisbane premiere of controversial French film Blue Is The Warmest Colour, it was no accident that everyone wore blue, as it had been a gimmick devised by Palace Cinemas Centro. The film that won the Palm d’Or at Cannes Film Festival with director Abdellatif Kechiche at its helm, has already risen to a kind of cult status with continued controversies, fueled by revelations of sexual exploitation and horrible working conditions. With all the salacious gossip, the film itself could be easily overlooked.
The tale tells of Adele, played by the incredibly talented and very young Adele Exarchopoulos, as a young woman in high school doing what teenagers typically do – or at least what is expected of her: gossiping with friends and navigating her way around her relationship with her first boyfriend. But Adele is hungry for more – literally and figuratively. There early part of the film devotes many close up shots to Adele eating, ravenously. Enter Emma, (Lea Seydoux), a slightly older university student with more life experience. The two develop a loving and passionate relationship that marks a transition for Adele from awkward schoolgirl to a woman with a more fully formed sense of self.
To demonstrate this, Kechiche devotes almost ten minutes of his three-hour film to a single sex scene between the girls. Much has been made of the length and explicitness of the scene, but other than the full frontal nudity and particularly unflinching nature of the wide shot in a film of mostly close ups, the sex between the protagonists is incredibly loving and impassioned. The sexual expression of two people in love should not be viewed as subversive. There are certainly more exploitative sex scenes out there, and the issues that stem from the many forms of human sexual conduct deserve more deliberation than this simple – even beautiful – scene. With the film version of the hit book Fifty Shades of Grey currently in production, one can only hope its release elicits many more conversations about the controversies it will undoubtedly raise around gender roles and female subjugation, than that of Emma and Adele’s comparatively innocent sex scene.
It may be difficult to escape criticism of the scene, as more revelations about the artistic process come to light. Both Exarchopoulos and Seydoux said the ten days it took to film the scene were a massive ordeal and that they will never work with Kechiche again. Seydoux was particularly vocal about the “horrible” shoot but Kechiche has hit back saying, “if Léa hadn’t been born in cotton wool, she would never have said that.” Adding to the dissenting voices is Julie Maroh, writer of the graphic novel that inspired the film. On her blog she has written “it appears to me that this was what was missing from the set: lesbians.” And critics such as At the Movies’ Margaret Pomeranz described feeling uncomfortable with the possibility that the director’s ‘male gaze’ may have made the scenes unduly pornographic.
It is the well-worn dilemma of who we allow to tell our stories: Can a straight man direct two straight women in a story about lesbianism? This begs for other questions to be posed: can a white man make a film about aboriginality – as was the case of Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes;or can a lesbian make a film about a transsexual as in Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry. The best stories are the ones that are intrinsically human and speak to all of us regardless of the context.
Kechiche’s methods may very well have been exploitative, but his finished product is not. There is tenderness in this film. Its brilliance lies in its visual explanation of the characters’ thoughts and feelings, which is as much a credit to the talented actresses as it is to Kechiche’s direction. Overall, it is a very relatable story about first love and first heartbreak. Kechiche resists the temptation to wrap up the ending with a tidy bow, instead understanding that some hurt never fully heals. So for all the joyous moments in this film, there is also incredible sadness with little catharsis for its viewers.
How appropriate then that we should all be wearing blue to the film’s Brisbane premiere. Blue is the Warmest Colour is a film that runs the gamut of difficult emotions from teenage awkwardness to adult melancholy and ultimately leaves the viewer feeling a little blue.