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Feminists Debate Cannes-Winner 'Blue is the Warmest Color''s Patriarchal Gaze

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by Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna
October 25, 2013 11:46 AM
14 Comments
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Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"
Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

While the critical reaction to Palme d'Or winner "Blue Is the Warmest Color" has been resoundingly positive (the jury vote for the film's selection, led by Steven Spielberg, was unanimous), there have been a few fascinating holdouts against the film, both of whom cite director Abdellatif Kechiche's male-fantasy gaze during the graphic sex scenes as problematic. And these displeased critics are important: the New York Times' mighty Manohla Dargis (in her review here, she accuses the director of "patriarchal anxiety") and the 27-year-old author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, Julie Maroh. (We talk to the film's stars here.)

Spielberg, in his remarks for the press conference of the Jury, was passionate about the selection of "Blue Is the Warmest Color" for the Palme. Of Kechiche' filmmaking decisions, he said: 

"He let the scenes play as long as they would in real life. And we were absolutely spellbound by the brilliance of the performances, by those amazing young actresses -- all the cast -- and especially the way the director observed his players. The way he just let the characters breathe, the spaces were as important as what they said, what they weren't saying. And we just all found that it was a profound love story... We were really happy that somebody had the courage to tell the story the way they told it."

Maroh took to her blog on May 27 to discuss the film. She considers herself and Kechiche to have "contradictory aesthetic approaches" (though she mentions that it would be "silly of me to reject something on the pretext that it's different from my own vision"), and goes on to talk about a major problem she has with the film:
"Now, as a lesbian... It appears to me this was what was missing on the set: lesbians. 
I don't know the sources of information for the director and the actresses (who are all straight, unless proven otherwise) and I was never consulted upstream. Maybe there was someone there to awkwardly imitate the possible positions with their hands, and/or to show them some porn of so-called "lesbians" (unfortunately it's hardly ever actually for a lesbian audience). Because -- except for a few passages -- 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 me feel very ill at ease. Especially when, in the middle of a movie theater, everyone was giggling. The heteronormative laughed because they don't understand it and find the scene ridiculous. The gay and queer people laughed because it's not convincing, and found it ridiculous. And among the only people we didn't hear giggling were the potential guys too busy feasting their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on screen."

Dargis, unlike Spielberg and his jury, was not spellbound by the lengthy sex scenes, calling the film in a fest critics' notebook entry she wrote for the Times an example of "the camera and its misuses." She was disappointed that the Kechiche:

"whose movies include 'The Secret of the Grain' and 'Black Venus' (another voyeuristic exercise), seems so unaware or maybe just uninterested in the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades. However sympathetic are the characters and Ms. Exarchopoulos, who produces prodigious amounts of tears and phlegm along with some poignant moments, Mr. Kechiche registers as oblivious to real women. He’s as bad as the male character who prattles on about 'mystical' female orgasms and art without evident awareness of the barriers female artists faced or why those barriers might help explain the kind of art, including centuries of writhing female nudes, that was produced.

'Men look at women,' the art critic John Berger observed in 1972. 'Women watch themselves being looked at.' Plus ça change...."

Feminist critic B. Ruby Rich, author of the must-read "New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut," defends the film on NPR, and many lesbians we know do as well. Says Rich:

"Certainly this film took me back to all the great passions of my life. You know the kind of sensation you're supposed to have when you're dying? That's how I felt about the different people I'd been with. ... That time in my life just came back. ... If people can be open to it, [this film] really can be a time machine, taking people back to some of the most vivid, passionate experiences in their life."

The reason that "Blue is the Warmest Color" works as well as it does is that you believe the intellectual and physical infatuation between the two young lovers played by Seydoux and Exarchopoulos. At the Telluride Film Festival, Agnieszka Holland told me that these two actresses were "very brave, and deserve applause."

Yes, they agree, they were braver than they thought they could be, even if the lengthy never-before-seen sex scenes were finally "still a fiction," says Seydoux. "There are secrets and fabrications everywhere. It's a movie, it's fake: we had fake pussies."

Meanwhile, aside from winning the top prize at Cannes, "Blue Is the Warmest Color" also topped Indiewire's Cannes Critics Poll. The film played well at fall festivals in Telluride, Toronto and New York, where the young stars Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos stirred up controversy over the working methods of their demanding director, who fought back.

So let the debates begin. Sundance Selects opens the movie October 25.

14 Comments

  • Zoe | March 27, 2014 1:02 AMReply

    I am a feminist who supports this film. It's intriguing that even when lesbian sex is involved, the conversation somehow has to be all about men (i.e. straight male director Kechiche) and his "male gaze" or "fantasies about how women have sex". All of this undermines the notion that women are also innately sexual beings, something that continues to be left out of conversation and mythologized. I think a lot of people had a hard time seeing these two girls f*ck as opposed to "make love" as if that's not how two women would go at it. These are passionate young women madly in love with each other who want to please each other. Hard sex is not simply the domain and privilege of males, there are females who enjoy these acts and are unashamed about their sexuality. I don't think attacking Kechiche makes sense either, or calling him a mysogynist or homophobe. Someone who fit those descriptions would have no interest in telling this story, one of the few that addresses coming of age through the eyes and experiences of a young woman, nonetheless shows her sexual discovery and awakening. In a world where male characters still dominate cinema (and straight ones at that) this was refreshing, as was a raw honest sex scene (that was not porn, nor even shot like porn. Kechiche focused on the emotion of this scene as well, which discounts exploitation, as does that he allows many scenes the same length of time and detail as anything sexual (which lasted less than 10 minutes of a 3 hour film). Consequently, what's wrong with sex? This is a love story and a coming of age story involving a teenager, nothing is happening onscreen that isn't believable as a real life occurance. It is mostly American audiences who have these childish hangups about nudity and sex while accepting violence, as an American it makes no sense to me and I have a hard time explaining it to any one. I absolutely love this movie, I think it is so rare and unique, and I am so grateful for Kechiche, Seydoux, and Exarchopoulos for making it. For the record, the actresses were given flexibility in what and how they would do the sex scenes, so much of what you are seeing where THEIR choices. Brave performances and direction all around. Bravo.

  • pol | February 20, 2014 8:05 PMReply

    This film would never be made so graphically if it was about two gay men (except in specifically male porn movies). It just wouldn't. The double standard is extraordinary.

  • Zoe | March 27, 2014 1:03 AM

    Um, no. Have you ever seen HBO television? Queer as Folk was a much more graphic show regarding sex scenes and sexuality than The L Word ever was. What is wrong with two women having sex and a healthy adventurous sexual appetite? Nothing. In other news, this movie is not porn, nor is it shot like porn (no money shots, high production lighting, etc). This is a story about love, plain and simple. Less than 10 minutes of sex in a 3 hour movie and everyone is acting like the world is ending.

  • ian | January 29, 2014 4:11 AMReply

    C.H. I agree with everything you said.

  • DChute | October 25, 2013 4:33 PMReply

    Anthony Lane in The New Yorker also good. Not allowed to paste in links but it's on the mag's website. Lane makes the key point that the sex scene is ten out of however many minutes in a film that has a lot of other good things in it. (He suspects that Spielberg was drawn to its Truffaut-ish view of youth more than the sex.)

  • Stephen Lourdes | October 25, 2013 2:02 PMReply

    I haven't go anything to add to the debate except to say thank you for the excellent article, links and balance. If there were Oscars for journos then I would say Anne and Beth are in the race : )

  • ao;ifn | May 31, 2013 3:33 AMReply

    She's perverting the movie with her own ideas of sex. She's the only objectifying person in this case. God she's as horrible as anyone who jumps on the sex before the emotions which shows where her real problem lies, like it makes them less human if the sex is involved, which is ass backwards. Also, I've seen hundreds of heterosexual sex scenes directed by presumably heterosexual people and it's always fake as fuck. What makes this porn? Watch anyone have sex lately? Bound to be explicit. She's making an argument for argument's sake. Go for her, seriously.

  • C.H. | May 29, 2013 11:03 PMReply

    MG, many lesbians happen to find the same things attractive and compelling that straight men do. The interest is in the same gender after all. When people say it is a "male fantasy" you negate that lesbians find it just as riveting. For that matter, so do plenty of straight women and gay men. For too long, the presentation of lesbians and bisexual women in cinema has catered to the notion that no one can, in any way, present the sex lives of women who love women in a manner that a straight man would possibly obtain arousal from. Such a stance has portrayed itself as an act of feminism when feminism is, first and foremost, about equality. How can equality exist when the depiction of sex between women is presented as in an almost asexual tone while sex between two men and sex between a woman and a man is given a pass as long as a man is nude? That pass based on the belief that as long as a man is nude it can no longer be considered of the straight male gaze of course is a convenient catch 22 that allows any portrayal between women having sex to automatically be labeled as being of a straight male gaze. After all, there are no men in the scene. This is more revealing about those who assert such imagery is made for men, a sort of unaware heterosexism which actually is pushing, whether meant or not, for a trivialized representation of sex between women. We have all seen plenty of films made by even lesbian filmmakers which seem so concerned with the idea that a straight male could possibly be intrigued that the film presents a relationship between women that comes across less as lovers and more as best friends who occasionally kiss in silhouetted imagery. Just today on one of the biggest lesbian entertainment sites there was talk about how lesbian filmmakers often direct awful sex scenes, scenes that feel false due some mistaken belief that we can't dare present a woman as sexually attractive or sex itself as erotic in an animalistic manner. It is wholly unsurprising that with such a sad mindset, with many heterosexists and lesbians both worried about straight men seeing a truthful image, that sex between women has been so shoddily depicted and often caused an inability to relate. Watching Brokeback Mountain or Weekend, a person is able to relate to a great deal, no matter their sexual orientation, because they see graphic scenes that establish the men aren't just pals who share some offscreen cuddles. The sex is raw and animalistic and therefore truthful. Films that pander to fears of being too explicit end up like The Kids Are All Right, in which the marriage of the women seems sexless. People wonder why so many moviegoers smiled at and enjoyed sequences where a woman has graphic sex with a man behind her wife's back? Yet isn't that going to happen when the main relationship is depicted as almost sexless and the relationship involving cheating has two nude people making love repeatedly.

    At it's worst, it has led to one of the most unique double standards. You will never hear people say a man and a woman having sex in a film were too attractive. You will never hear people say a man and a man having sex in a film were too attractive. Yet you will hear people moan that a woman and a woman having sex in a film were too attractive. Think of that for a moment. Think of what that is really saying. Can one imagine someone attacking Ang Lee because Heath and Jake were too hot. Those were two incredibly handsome men. Yet we don't have this odd it must be a fantasy talk.

    Maroh's comments seem based in annoyance and even envy of not being included in the celebration around the film and it's prior making as much as she wished she was. There is no one viewpoint on how sex between women should be presented. Not all women do this or that. The journeys are different and that includes when making love. To say that a man cannot be the auteur that depicts this journey is, itself, a foolish concept that seeks restrictive ownership of what is a universal subject - love.

    these two women were so deeply in love and all the audience members my friends talked to were invested in this relationship in a way they said they never had been for a same sex romance. They were telling my friends about being blissful and happy as these two women fall in love and devastated to the point of tears when heartbreak happened in the film.

    Some ugly stories have come out to. Of a straight female critic decrying the sex scenes because, after all, all lesbian sex is about men. Of another female critic who, despite not even seeing the film, posting repeatedly about the straight male gaze and how only straight men could possibly like it. Of certain American male critics that acted as if no lesbian story could ever be of importance as more than titillation.

    However these were just a few voices, ones trapped in fear or incompetently failing to see how they negate lesbians. This unaware lack of respect for women who love women is luckily minute among an overwhelming group of people who felt that for the first time they were actually seeing a love story for the ages that happened to involve people of the same sexual orientation as themselves and people who related to a love story between women as they never had before. As Lynne Ramsay, the great filmmaker who was on the jury said, above everything this was a love story.

    P.S. if you haven't read Stephanie Zacharek's rebukes of the behavior exhibited by people like Dargis you should. Look for her piece in the Village Voice and her being quoted in the Daily Beast article on the movie. Great stuff. Also Movie City News did a terrific job discussing how the tendency to call all lesbian sex a male fantasy says more about those people than the film.

  • Amy | May 31, 2013 7:25 PM

    Wow. A long comment, but very interesting. I haven't seen the film itself, so I can't comment on it specifically. But I have been thinking about how, as you said, people - both men and women - automatically assume that lesbian sex scenes are masturbatory fantasies for men. Of course, they sometimes are, which is problematic in and of itself, but the fact that people can't even conceive of a lesbian romance, even one directed by a man, that isn't about male voyeurism shows how deeply engrained misogyny is in our society.

  • mg | May 29, 2013 8:50 PMReply

    As I watched the movie in the first screening I was totally involved. It may be longer than necessary but it isn't boring as it allows the relationship to develop and fall apart. But, as a straight male who loves watching women, I did find myself wondering how this might have been handled by a female director. The love making is graphic but not hardcore---and it is also clearly a male fantasy presentation.

    I suspect women would film it many different ways...even lesbian directors would take different approaches. Remember Donna Deitch's DESERT HEARTS. Gorgeous woman and some hot sex filmed from a lesbian director's perspective, circa 1985. Some might do it in a similar approach. But it was refreshing that there was no violence---the sex was gentle and loving. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

  • Zoe | March 27, 2014 1:10 AM

    How is it clearly a male fantasy presentation? Hate to burst your bubble, but hard hot lesbian sex has nothing to do with men and women are just as capable of enjoying sex as men are. The actresses in this film made many of the choices with respect to what transpired in the bedroom.

  • claoaij | May 29, 2013 3:15 PMReply

    The problem with film is that the director, writer, whoever, is only as loud as the images (if it's a good film). These two people have considerable reasoning to speak out concerning this topic, but I sincerely think it says more about them, their views on sex, and what accounts for our feelings regarding sex in a story that uses photography to pass off a message.

    Sex is powerful, and if there's a more poignant way to represent it than by showing it as a positive circumstance that helps to liberate oneself into realizing their fullest being as an individual, then why is this film's representation negative? Is it simply because the end result will always hold the weight of a man behind the lens and thus a naked body is turned into an object rather than a person because the man might lust for that particular gender?

    I'd love to ask these two people if they've seen a film done by a woman that displays sex any differently regarding a gay couple. Maybe a woman, or lesbian would've shot the scenes differently or felt they were unnecessary or maybe they wouldn't. Maybe they would've made the decision to portray the sex in all it's real time glory. So if they pulled that aesthetic choice, then what would make the images different? Sex shouldn't be hidden, or shunned, or segregated. That seemed like the point Kechiche brought up in a couple of interviews.

    I would be more inclined to agree with these two peoples' arguments if the sex was portrayed in a different way than simply "a couple having good sex and connecting". Girls, the tv show, has rarely if ever displayed sex without the tight grip of someone making a point. It's sex that degrades sex and showing the ways it's used in power plays and social consciousness. You know, the kind of sex apparently not being represented in Blue is the Warmest Color.

    If anything, people may just be irritated that the sex didn't allow for a political context which then just leaves lust, and bonding. I think men have just given each other such a bad name over the centuries that the chance for one of us to portray (key word) a story of something written by a woman and getting the major points across but still only being harbored as misogynist because the women fuck in real time, then we still have a lot to talk about that's outside of the film itself.

  • No | May 29, 2013 2:59 PMReply

    WOW!! A film wins top prize at Cannes and already people are literally bitching about labor and the perennial "male gaze." I find it utterly fascinating that the original creator didn't expect this to happen since she signed off on her work being interpreted by a male director!! Wasn't she aware of the director's previous track record? Did she not have any say in the screenwriting? What did she do to negotiate that a fair representation of her work would be transmitted to the screen? If she was so concerned about the truth of lesbian sex, what did she do to insure that the film would try to invoke its reality? Or, is there really anything truly called "lesbian sex" but is, in reality, merely sex between two people who happened to women?

    And then you have a NY Times critic accusing the director of dodging "the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades," which is just another standard complaint.

  • Zoe | March 27, 2014 1:09 AM

    It's clear Maroh has jealousy issues. Artists can be critical of loose adaptations of their own work. I thought the graphic novel sucked, the movie was SO much better. And for all of Maroh's gripes, she's a lesbian and she KILLED off her main character while Kechiche offers Adele the possibility of carring on in life. I don't think Maroh has anything groundbreaking or positive to offer with respect to the representation she presented in the graphic novel. Also, there were graphic sex scenes in her novel, too, so I have no idea what she's complaining about.

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