With all due respect to Cameron Diaz, who grinds herself to completion on a Ferrari in The Counselor, the most controversial sex scene of 2013 belongs to Blue is the Warmest Color.
From the moment the movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the coverage has been fast and furious. One of the first dispatches on the film from Cannes, courtesy of New York magazine, claimed, “I clocked the first sex scene between Adèle and Emma — replete with fingering, licking, and, as a friend called it, ‘impressive scissoring’ — at an approximate ten minutes. Audience walkouts began around minute nine. That turned into spontaneous applause (and relieved laughter), when the women climaxed and finished a minute later.” The reporter from Variety, meanwhile, wrote that it had “the most explosively graphic lesbian sex scenes in recent memory.”
Now, the scene may feel like it’s 10 minutes long, but it’s really a shade over seven. And yes, much of the feigned shock—or genuine, as it were—over the sequence can be credited to a mélange of tabloid sensationalism, the last vestiges of American Puritanism, and heteronormativity. Some of the criticisms aimed at the scene, however, are legitimate.
But first, some background.
Blue is the Warmest Color tells the tale of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a 15-year-old high school student in Paris whose initial forays into the realm of sexual experimentation leave much to be desired. One day, she crosses paths with Emma (Léa Seydoux), an art student at a nearby college with a flashy blue ’do, and becomes infatuated with her. After a series of flirtatious encounters in the park, the two fall madly, passionately in love. All the brewing tension comes to a head in their first love scene: a seven-minute paroxysm of sexual desire replete with clawing, slapping, scratching, moaning, and howling. It’s feral.
There were several walkouts at both screenings of the movie I attended—the first in late August at the Telluride Film Festival, and the second at the New York Film Festival earlier this month. They were all, from what I could gather, middle-aged women who bid the film adieu at around the five-minute mark. And Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel upon which the film is based, penned a lengthy screed against the sex scene after it screened in Cannes, calling it “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and made me feel very ill at ease.”
When I interviewed the two stars of the film, Adèle Exarchopoulos, 19, and Léa Seydoux, 28, at Telluride, the actresses spoke out against their director, Abdellatif Kechiche, complaining of the “power” he wielded over them, and how the first sex scene, in particular, was “very embarrassing.” Seydoux also revealed that they shot the scene over 10 days, and that the actresses had “fake pussies that were molds of our real pussies,” to simulate manual and oral penetration. The interview has since caused a great deal of controversy, particularly between Seydoux and Kechiche, with the latter recently penning a fiery open letter—they are all the rage these days, aren’t they?—defending his vision and treatment of the actresses. Before I go into exactly why the scene is problematic, it should be noted that Blue is the Warmest Color is one of the best films of the year—a fantastically acted, enduring portrait of first love. It vividly captures the feelings of lust and infatuation inherent in first love, and the psychological toll it bears when it shatters into a million pieces. Both actresses—in particular Exarchopoulos, who delivers the best performance, male or female, of the year—deserve to be nominated for Oscars, and Kechiche should, all things considered, be given kudos for creating a fine work of art. It’s also an important film. Just days after the movie won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the first official same-sex marriage ceremony took place in France—on May 29, in Montpellier.
Now to the scene.
For starters, it does run too long. It’s nothing to walk out over—what a disrespectful, wrongheaded act that is in the presence of such a terrific film. But it could stand to have its running time cut in half. Even if Kechiche’s aim was to challenge the heteronormative way most movie-going audiences process onscreen sexuality by presenting them with seven minutes of sweaty girl-on-girl carnality, which is admirable, it still runs too long. By the fourth minute, you’ll go for your soda; by the fifth, you’ll check your watch; by the sixth, everyone’s eyes will dart around the theater to break the monotony onscreen; and by the seventh, it’s become a farcical tangle of panting and moaning.
The other problem is the way it is staged and lit. Much of the love scene is composed of medium shots, with the camera focused on the two horizontal bodies writhing on a bed. The bodies are seen, as well as the bed and the windows. The bed is essentially acting as the stage, and the women are being presented as spectacle. This, combined with some odd, hazy lighting, lending the proceedings a desaturated sheen that isn’t present anywhere else in the film, proves a puzzling combination. The scene looks—and is staged—like porn circa 1970s.
Point of view is the biggest concern when it comes to the sex scene. Because of the way the shots are composed—from medium shots to close-ups, and always through the point of view of the director—the camera makes the audience assume the perspective of a man, or the “male gaze,” as feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey would put it. “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness,” Mulvey wrote in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” her groundbreaking 1975 essay on the subject. “Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.” It’s pure voyeurism, or scopophilia. If the POV had shifted from the camera’s to that of the two women—or better yet, switching the POV back-and-forth between each of the two women—then the scene would have been far more effective, and less like exhibitionism.
While Blue is the Warmest Color is a great film, and deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, its sex scene does leave something to be desired: the female gaze.