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'Blue Is the Warmest Color's Lesbian Sex Scenes Are Hot But Boring

Criticwire By Judith Dry | Criticwire October 16, 2013 at 12:41PM

The controversial lesbian love scenes in 'Blue Is the Warmest Color' are authentic but don't add much to the story.
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'Blue Is the Warmest Color's Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux
'Blue Is the Warmest Color's Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux

Two girls on screen are devouring each other, the sun a tiny bright ball eclipsed behind their plump lips, briefly illuminating the space between their hungry mouths until they dive in for more, swallowing the light and each other. We see nipples sucked erect, heads buried deep between thighs, hear the smacking of hands on flesh and the slosh of fluids. You can almost smell the sex. And, yes, you can even glimpse something small and blossom like, briefly unrecognizable in its hairlessness, even to a connoisseur. (Not that I know any...)

Are you blushing yet? Don't worry, so is the entire Western media. In the maelstrom of Op-eds and reviews, gossip columns and interviews, even winning Canne's coveted Palme d'Or couldn't save Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color from becoming the butt of many "girl-on-girl action" jokes (a term I'd be happy to never hear again.) Turns out the joke's on us, America. What is wrong with us that we cannot enjoy a little sexual coming of age film without needing a cold shower? America, your puritanical roots are showing. 

Aside from a few detours to the land of actress/director feuds, the cultural discourse around the film has been surprisingly astute. Manohla Dargis began the conversation, perhaps unfairly, when she took to her New York Times megaphone to proclaim, "The movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche's desires than anything else." The gauntlet tossed, any serious film critic had to address their grande dame's assertion if they wanted to review the film. And want to, they did. B. Ruby Rich stepped up to advocate for the film, a respected theorist and critic who coined the term "New Queer Cinema." She's quoted in the trailer, alongside Steven Spielberg, saying, "Blue carries the female coming of age film into historic new territory." Dargis responded teasingly, according to one industry insider, that her colleague was simply titillated by the sex scenes. I guess Dargis' opinion as a heterosexual (we call them breeders) is more valid, since she was not (ostensibly) in danger of being distracted by any stirrings she may have felt. I, like Rich, was in grave, grave danger. 

And so the dialogue about who is and is not allowed to tell certain stories becomes about who is and is not allowed to participate in said dialogue. It's very confusing. Dear readers, I present my totally biased opinion of the explicit sapphic sex scenes: hot, authentic, and frankly, kind of boring.

The wild positions, animal passion, and seeming endlessness of the sex scenes was very naturalistic. Kechiche, a Tunisian Frenchman, obviously did his homework. (Perhaps that is what got Dargis so riled.) What I object to is that the three sex scenes, each virtually indistinguishable from the next, did not progress and therefore did not serve the narrative. The first scene cements the intense passion the two share, although for a first-timer our protagonist Adele is suspiciously savvy, needing no direction. Which brings me to my only technical gripe, which is the complete lack of talking. Lesbians talk during sex. A lot. A little talking helps steer the ship, as it could have with this movie. 

"Stranger by the Lake"
"Stranger by the Lake"

It could have showed how these characters relate to each other, who is in control when, and how their sexual interaction mirrors their interaction outside the bedroom. Instead, we get a second sex scene that looks just like the first, except that they have advanced very quickly to lesbian sex 401: scissoring. And when one lover's interest starts to wane, we see no sign of it in the final sex scene. Would that not have been a good time to use sex to tell the story?

I don't mean to insist the film failed because the sex was unrealistic. Blue Is the Warmest Color is a work of art, it does not need to be realistic. But Kechiche failed in his mission. You see, he wrote himself a stand-in to act as mouthpiece, a handsome older Tunisian man who has the power to "make or break" a young artist's career, much like Kechiche has done for his actress/muse. When a lively discussion of female sexuality breaks out over spaghetti, the artist insists, "For you, our orgasm is mystical." Faux Kechiche answers, "Everything I glimpse is frustrated by the limits of male sexuality." 

So Dargis was right. But Kechiche admits it. If only he displayed the same respect for female artists as his fictional counterpart does. When asked in a press conference what lesbian directed films he considered this film's forebears, Kechiche replied, Ben-Hur.

Three hours long, Blue is the Warmest Color luxuriates in its post-coital malaise, while Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By the Lake packs a mighty punch into 97 minutes. Set at a beach where gay men go to tan in the nude and tumble in the bushes, this paradise for the horny and lonely is disrupted when one of their own mysteriously drowns. Guiraudie manages to infuse the glistening water with a menacing hue, and the sounds of breeze in the trees or footsteps on gravel assume an ominous timbre. Nature can be dangerous, but human nature is lethal. Sex here is central to the story's entire reason for being told; it brings our characters together to this beach and clouds all other desires, even the desire to survive. By equating gay male sex with death, Guiraudie reminds us of the problematic tropes of the past, boldly declaring them no longer off-limits. Unlike Kechiche, Guiraudie writes from his own experience, rather than striving to see the world through a different lens. He strips nude alongside his characters, liberating himself to reveal his dark inner nature. 

This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year's New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.


This article is related to: Critics Academy, New York Film Festival


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