Cannes Controversy

05.29.13

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or Winner, ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color,’ Is Not Porn

Some critics have accused Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or winner ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ of being ‘voyeuristic’ and pornographic. Not so, writes Richard Porton.

On Sunday, right-wing and Catholic protesters took to the streets in Paris to demonstrate against France’s recent decision to legalize gay marriage. On Sunday evening, the Cannes Competition jury announced that it was giving its top prize, the Palme d’Or, to Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, a 2-hour-and-59-minute lesbian romance that has, by now, become famous for several protracted sex scenes. (In addition, in an unprecedented move, the jury headed by Steven Spielberg insisted that the movie’s two remarkable stars—Léa Seydoux and Adéle Exarchopoulos—be included as recipients of the coveted Palme.)

An approximately 10-minute scene (although estimates of its length go as high as 20 minutes; I’m not sure that anyone has timed it with a stopwatch), that, in the parlance of the ever-tasteful Daily Mail “leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination”—and that Vulture praised for its “impressive scissoring”—has been the subject of extensive scrutiny.

For much of the media, this odd juxtaposition of right-wing venom toward gay marriage and cinephilic celebration of same-sex passion exemplifies the split in contemporary France between a liberal, secular majority and a retrograde minority opposed to redefining an institution they consider sacred.

On another level, Kechiche’s triumph represents a significant symbolic victory for France’s North African community. The director, a Frenchman of Tunisian descent, initially gained a reputation in the early 2000s as a pioneer of “beur cinema”—films devoted to the struggles of the North African community, many of which chronicled life in the tough Parisian banlieues, or “suburbs.” On Sunday, Kechiche dedicated his prize to Tunisian youth and in Warm’s press book maintains that no political revolution is complete without a “sexual revolution.” When I interviewed him for Cineaste in 2005 to discuss his charming film, Games of Love and Chance, he told me that the “French cultural elite” treated him with nothing but contempt and condescension. Like Games, Blue is essentially a coming-of-age story with political undertones; Emma (Seydoux) woos Adèle (Exarchopoulos) by riffing on themes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism Is a Humanism and their love affair can be understood as an effort to achieve what existentialists termed “authenticity.” 

While the warm afterglow of Kechiche’s Palme might seem like a straightforward triumph for the multicultural left, the response to Blue, especially among the assembled journalists at Cannes, was far from straightforward. It’s true that Jury President Steven Spielberg might have extolled the film as a “beautiful love story.” But after its initial press screening, a still-simmering debate emerged between the bulk of journalists who lauded the film for its intense depiction of adolescent sexuality and naysayers, such as Manohla Dargis, who excoriated Kechiche in The New York Times for indulging in a “voyeuristic exercise” and wondered why the director, who “seems oblivious to real women [is] so unaware or maybe just uninterested in the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades.”

Should men—or for that matter women—aroused by these scenes be moralistically dissed as the arthouse equivalents of the raincoat brigade?

Unraveling the implications of these diametrically opposed responses to Blue is not an easy task. To be blunt, one doesn’t have to believe that Kechiche’s magnum opus is a masterpiece—I certainly didn’t and would have much preferred Jia Zhang-Ke’s A Touch of Sin to have won the Palme—to be baffled by the ideological blinders donned by critics who believe that this homage to youthful l’amour fou should be stigmatized as no more than a salacious “exercise in voyeurism.”

When I suggested to an erudite female critic during the festival that I wasn’t sure that Kechiche’s agenda should be caricatured as male prurience, she shot back that “his dick was up there on the screen.” (She was presumably speaking of a metaphorical phallus, unless of course Amat Escalante’s Heli, which boasts a now-notorious “penis on fire” torture scene, had traumatized her. To almost everyone’s surprise, Escalante won the Best Director prize on Sunday.)

This comical dialogue of the deaf was apparently not atypical. In an email, the Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek reports that she “kept running into male critics at Cannes who loved the movie and were being dressed down by women who claimed they were being led by their dicks. That business makes me just as angry as—no, MORE angry than—idiot guys who write in to tell me that I shouldn’t be writing about comic-book movies because I’m a ‘girl.’ It truly is hitting below the belt, because it assumes that aesthetic and intellectual considerations are inherently more important than emotional ones in assessing any movie, when, really, so many of the movies we love and respond to work on us in a much more complicated way.”

Still, the conundrum that remains is why Dargis and her cohorts seem unable to process what is actually depicted on screen in Kechiche’s film. Whatever one thinks of his marathon sex scenes, they’re clearly much different from pornographic versions of lesbian sex; the camera doesn’t fetishize individual sex organs and the ostensible intention is to enshrine sexual ecstasy, not titillate male viewers. Of course, since Seydoux and Exarchopoulos possess undeniably beautiful bodies, it’s logical that sexual arousal might be a byproduct of the film’s homage to uninhibited sensuality. Should men—or for that matter women—aroused by these scenes be moralistically dissed as the arthouse equivalents of the raincoat brigade?

Unless I’m being unfair, it’s also implicit in the arguments of the anti-Kechiche contingent that his sex scenes are unacceptable because they’re the handiwork of a male director, not a pro-sex feminist auteur. Unlike antiporn activists like the late Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, most of the critics harrumphing about Kechiche’s “male gaze” are more than willing to embrace sexually graphic films, as long as they’re made by women directors such as Catherine Breillat and Chantal Akerman.

Part of the feminist fury toward Kechiche is also doubtlessly attributable to the mainstreaming of academic feminist film theory of the 1970s, a genre whose founding text is Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” (Once a famous name only in film-studies departments, Mulvey was actually name-checked last year on an episode of Parks and Recreation.) Mulvey’s revulsion toward “patriarchal” aesthetics led her to advocate the “destruction of pleasure as a radical weapon”—especially male pleasure.

From this perspective, it’s obvious why certain feminists might prefer a film like Akerman’s avant-gardist Je Tu Il Elle (1976) to Blue Is the Warmest Color. Like Blue, Akerman’s minimalist movie also includes a lengthy, and graphic, lesbian love scene. The sex in Je Tu, however, is often praised for its lack of erotic frisson, as well as its ability to encapsulate the protagonist’s sense of alienation. As Michael Koresky observes in the notes for the Criterion Collection’s edition of the film, Akerman “severely complicates our voyeuristic impulse through flat, detached compositions.” Still, however one assesses the relative merits of Akerman and Kechiche’s work, why are depictions of alienated, unerotic sexuality necessarily preferable to Kechiche’s honest desire to make the sex in Blue aesthetically pleasing or, as he puts it, “beautiful?”

As of this date, Blue, which was snapped up for U.S. distribution by IFC Sundance Selects, has only been seen by a handful of critics and distributors. When the film eventually reaches a wider public, it will be fascinating to see if its reception remains skewed according to gender. It will also be instructive to learn if the lesbian community embraces the movie or agrees with its detractors, who scorn it as exploitative and, to employ the requisite academic jargon, “masculinist.”