The Problems With "Blue is the Warmest Color."

The actresses of Blue is the Warmest Color share a kiss

By the time it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the French film Blue is the Warmest Color was well on its way to being one of the most highly praised—and most controversial—films of the year. Blue centers on the sexual awakening of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a high school student, and her love affair with Emma (Lea Seydoux), an older, self-assured art student. Shot in a naturalistic style by writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche and featuring riveting performances by its two lead actresses, the three-hour film charts the women’s relationship over a decade, their coming-of-age, and how they experience the loss of first love after their break-up. 

A huge amount of the talk surrounding Blue was (and continues to be) focused on an explicit, ten-minute scene in which the two young actresses engage in simulated, unchoreographed sex. Revelations that the two actresses wore prosthetic vaginas over their real vaginas during the scene’s ten-day shoot have only served to create more buzz about it. (If you’re curious, do a quick Google search for “blue is the warmest color fake vaginas” and you’ll see just how much these prosthetic vulvas have captured our collective cultural attention.)

The poster for Blue is the Warmest ColorBlue generated a raft of rave reviews at Cannes, but a handful of critics including Magnolia Dargis took issue with Kechiche’s depiction of female sexuality. Conflict over the film increased when Julie Maroh, creator of the graphic novel on which the film is based, issue a scathing critique on her blog that the adaptation had robbed its female characters of agency and emotional depth, and equated the film to pornography. There’s been no stopping the controversies since then. During a press tour during the Telluride film festival, the film’s stars described terrible treatment at the hands of Kechiche during the film’s overly long and grueling five-month shoot, which then led to two months of public sparring between the actresses and director. (Over at Vulture, Anna Silman has created a handy timeline of the feud.) Even the film’s controversies have controversies: after New York’s IFC Center issued a public statement saying that it would allow teens to see Blue despite the film’s NC-17 rating, they came under fire from the Parents Television Council for disregarding the rating. Yet, even as the controversies pile up and the critiques of the film’s depiction of lesbian sexuality continue to increase, Blue continues to achieve widespread critical acclaim.

In some ways, that acclaim is merited. Actresses Exarchopoulos and Seydoux give two of the finest performances you’ll see on screen this year. And the film is often quite moving; it captures the devouring feeling of first love in a strong and palpable way. But Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are constantly undercut by Kechiche’s direction, which often seems more about his directorial desires than the motivations of the story’s protagonists. Midway through the film, a male character at a party full of artists describes the mystical and elusive essence of female sexuality. It’s a useful thumbnail for understanding Kechiche’s cold and calculating approach to the now-notorious sex scene, in which the actresses contort themselves mechanically and with great solemnity into a variety of sexual positions. To be sure, there’s an element of voyeurism at work, but it’s also clear that Kechiche is putting lesbian sexuality on display to show off his boldness as a director. The result is hollow and joyless, especially compared to the vibrant intimacy Exarchopoulos and Seydoux bring to so many other moments together on-screen.

It’s telling that the Steven Spielberg-led jury at Cannes formally recognized the two actresses along with the director when awarding the Palme d'Or—the first time actors have ever been acknowledged along with a director. Combined with the performances of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, the sweeping scope of Kechiche’s film is admirable. It’s just too bad that Kechiche is more interested in capturing the details of Adèle’s and Emma’s emotions—he spares the audience no tears, quivering lips, hungry mouths, or snotty noses—than in conveying a real sense of their emotional journeys. 

Watch the trailer for Blue is the Warmest Color

Want the best of Bitch in your inbox? Sign up for our free weekly reader!

Read and buy Bitch magazine's current print issue!


6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Pretty good review. I'm so

Pretty good review. I'm so sick of reading reviews of this movie that discuss nothing but the controversy of the sex scene, while there is so much else going on in the film, and I'm glad this review discusses a wider spectrum.

What has stuck with me a week after first seeing the film are the performances by these two women, certainly the best I've seen this year. The only performance that comes close (for me) this past year is Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. It makes perfect sense to award them the Palme, they shaped this film just as much as the director has- I'm not quite sure I've ever seen another film where that is as apparent as it is here.

And wow, the cinematography was beautiful for the majority of the film. There is so much visceral imagery in this film, and that helps carry it too.

Correction - it's Manohla

Correction - it's Manohla Dargis.

Since when is a lesbian a (n

Since when is a lesbian a (n explicit?) sex scene (more) controversial then a (explicit) hetero sex-scene? Is that an American thing? I'd agree when it would be a gay sex scene but lesbian sex has been featured to death in „hetero“ porn so I'd be surprised if anyone would find this controversial in a fictional movie.

I was annoyed with the sex

I was annoyed with the sex scene but it had nothing to do with the fact that it was lesbian, its because I thought they were beyond excessive. I think it shows a lack of skill when a director (or writer) can't get their point across with out over the top exploitation. I understand sex scenes were necessary for this film but, just as with anything thats abrasive to look at, be it physical violence, emotional fighting, or sex on screen, when it is excessive it distracts the viewer, instead of seeing it as "wow look how passionate they are" it becomes "holy christ how long is this scene?"

Great film

As a woman who sleeps with woman, I have no problems with this movie. I do take issue with the pseudo-puritanical nonsense this country has when it comes to nudity and sexuality. Why should women be ashamed of their bodies and physical love with one another? The people who continue to make 10 minutes of a 3-hour movie the main conversation have completely missed the point of this film, which is a love story, not one of sex - sex is part of love and thus, finds it's way into this film. Not to exploit or degrade, but to inform and to move the story along and to detail the passion these characters feel. Prosthetics were used, it is not porn. The emotional levels Kechiche explores are rich, he tells a story in a way that is universal, regardless of the orientation of the characters. Regardless of controversy, the lead actors have both said they have no regrets and are proud of what they accomplished regardless of Kechiche's methods (which actually aren't rare for many of the great directors, often considered perfectionistic and with tyranistic tendencies). To discount this film because of some skin just goes to show how far we still have to go. If the leads can live with their choices, I'm sure we can, too. Rather than describing Kechiche as "cold and calculating" there is astonishing warmth to this film, layered in nearly every scene. The film is a masterpiece and in 2013, it's high time women stop being their own worse enemy and support stories about women and allow exploration of their bodies and sexuality to not be a crime.

female sexuality

I also enjoyed the movie and am disappointed in the criticisms of the movie that revolve around graphic sex and male gaze.

However the reviewer made a good observation that I also noticed. The scene during the party for Emma's first public portrait of Adele, the guy goes on about the mysticism and eroticism of female pleasure and how he believes it's more desirable than male's and etc...

This was the one time in the movie, the film felt kind of meta and it was obvious the director added that in to share his perspective on female sexuality and female sexual pleasure. That one scene was a bit too contrived and tripe for me.