Art is supposed to imitate life, not explain it. It’s also not supposed to alter our perception of reality unless the purpose behind the project is to do just that. Film, more than any other medium, offers such a complex paradigm, especially when you consider that most narratives use the artform as a means to shed light on subjects both mundane and misunderstood while also providing a window into these worlds.
Equally important, however, is the need to bring said insight to the audience, not to simply supply a superficial sheen to something we’ve experienced a dozen times before. Sadly, the latter is the case with recent Cannes Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color. A film about an intimate and ultimately unfulfilling relationship between two young French women, it’s an exploration of lesbianism made by someone who has no understanding of the same sex dynamic. Instead, it’s an overlong bore that borders on an affront, especially when the highly publicized explicit sex scenes take center stage.
Like Lust, Caution, in which Ang Lee delivered a similarly antiseptic treatment of doomed attraction and carnal politics, Blue is the Warmest Color can’t begin to describe what being gay truly is like. Instead, director Abdellatif Kechiche goes into arthouse overload mode, delivering languid takes of pouty Parisians, all while preparing to fluster us with full frontal formality.
Nothing much happens here. A young, confused girl named Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is your typical high school adolescent. She doesn’t know where she’s going, she has no idea how to get there if she did, and she more or less conforms to the requirements of her peer group, her parents, and her partial attraction to a young man named Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte). He’s a musician and doesn’t quite match up to Adele intellectually, but hormones will be hormones.
One night, our halting heroine runs into the older, blue-haired beauty Emma (Léa Seydoux) and the attraction is immediate. Even when Adele has sex with Thomas, it’s this new girl that haunts her fantasies. Eventually, the girls become partners, then intimates, and then things start maturing and, as usual, falling apart. In between, Kechiche provides us with moments of uneasy voyeurism as his camera captures excessive sequences of lavishingly shot female gratuity.
This is not pornography, per se, but yet another failed attempt at showing sex on screen without resorting to pure hardcore histrionics or stylized ambiguity. As an audience, we are supposed to sit back and watch as these two women “discover” each other, learning what it’s like to be safe and secure in the sensual embrace of a likeminded lover. The result is ultimately as unfulfilling as any fake sensuality can be.
And then… well, nothing, or at the very least, nothing you don’t already know about. The hot physical attraction begins to cool down, the reality of having to be with someone outside the sheets starts interfering with the fantasy, and it’s not long before we can see that Emma and Adele are a temporary, not a timeless thing.
The problem is, Blue is the Warmest Color doesn’t offer such obvious connections. Instead, it bathes everything in a “foreign film” phoniness that would be mocked and ridiculed had Kechiche not taken on the subject of homosexuality. A few decades before, a movie like Making Love (where a doctor, Michael Ontkean, falls in love with a patient played by Harry Hamlin) was seen as brave and audacious. It was also a product of its 1982 period sensibility toward homosexuality. Today, we are much more tolerant and open (Russia and Africa aside), and yet Blue is the Warmest Color feels a need to blanket its blatant purpose in close ups of prosthetic genitalia. It’s exploitation as ersatz erotica.
The controversial which lead up to this film’s eventual mainstream release speaks volumes to its problems. Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel upon which the storyline was adapted, has railed against Kechiche, arguing that he brought no understanding to her material. Like many, she believes the film reflects its maker’s man-oriented fetishes rather than any real depiction of queer life.
Fans of hers are also angry that the homophobia depicted in the book has been more or less watered down here. And then there are the actresses, who’ve made it very clear that they felt violated by Kechiche’s approach to their love scenes. All of this suggests something not made to enlighten or teach, but instead, to entertain and titillate. For many, that will be enough. For others, it will be like Gentleman’s Agreement, with scissoring.
You can’t spend that much time on lesbian sex, carefully crafting and choreographing each encounter, and not face some amount of aesthetic backlash. But in a year when Hollywood finally confronted the horrors of racism in a historic and masterful way (thanks to a Brit, Steve McQueen, and his majestic 12 Years a Slave), something like Blue is the Warmest Color seems like the standard cinematic ‘apology’ before someone comes along and makes the real movie about lesbianism. In fact, there’s a growing underground and independent movement within gay cinema which puts much of what Kechiche and his pert participants are trying to do to shame. You might as well go back to something like 1985’s Desert Hearts to see such a slight treatment of the subject.
When you hear the ballyhoo, when you witness your fellow film critics falling over themselves over how brilliant or brave a movie is supposed to be, a certain level of expectation is usually the result. As the uninitiated arrive at the moment of experience, they simultaneously hope for the hype and dread the possible disappointment. This is clearly the situation with something like Blue is the Warmest Color. It could never truly be as great as many have made it out to be (and if some believe so, terrific — they are always entitled to their opinion), but it’s also not some unfairly praised travesty. Rather, it’s an attempt to imitate the life and love of two women who hope to transcend stereotypes and form a lasting bond.
Thanks to some intriguing performances, we get the gist of such a strategy. On account of everything else, we end up with a sloppy, superficial stretch.