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

Thompson on Hollywood By Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood October 25, 2013 at 11:46AM

While the critical reaction to recent 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, and the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, Julie Maroh.
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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.

This article is related to: News, Blue is the Warmest Color , Abdel Kechiche, Léa Seydoux, News


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