Blue is the Warmest Colour: More than the sum of its parts

Is ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ merely art-porn? No, says Ellen E Jones, who defends the cinematic cause célèbre

You don’t need to have seen Blue is the Warmest Colour in order to have an opinion about it. The promise of extended lesbian sex scenes will pique the interest of some; the fact that it is more than three hours long and French will damn it in the minds of others. You may have heard that lead actress Léa Seydoux described the shoot as “horrible” and vowed never to work with director Abdellatif Kechiche again. And whatever inference you take from all these details, one stark fact remains: this is an explicitly sexual film about a love affair between two young women written and directed by a 52-year-old man.

But you really are best off actually watching the thing before making up your mind. A sex scene lasting seven minutes, or 10 minutes, or 15 minutes – none of the critics seems quite sure – might sound long in the abstract, but within the context of the film, it isn’t noticeably lingering. That’s because all of the film’s scenes are lengthy. By the time Adèle and Emma become intimate, a pace has already been set. 

It has also been suggested by critics, including The New York Times’s redoubtable Manohla Dargis, that Kechiche’s camerawork in the sex scenes employs the grammar of pornography, with objectifying close-ups of breasts, mouths and vaginas. Yet again, though, within the context of the film, which includes many non-sexual close ups, it’s clear that Adèle is not just a collection of body parts. Rather, the astonishingly unselfconscious performance of actress Adèle Exarchopoulos allows us to witness an intellectual, emotional and, yes, sexual coming-of-age. We know the books she reads and how she feels about them, we know her friends and her family, and throughout the film the passion Adele and her girlfriend Emma have for their respective vocations is as evident as their passion for each other.

Kechiche could have left the sex scene out entirely. That would have pleased America’s Parents Television Council, who complained about a New York cinema allowing teenagers to watch it. But in a film which so determinedly sets out to capture the experience of love, that would be an oddly timid omission. By giving sex its proper weighting in these characters’ lives, Blue is the Warmest Colour exposes the artifice of every traditional romantic drama that coyly cuts from a tangle of bedsheets.

Or Kechiche could have left the story alone altogether, and let it be told by a woman – and, better still, a gay woman. This would please Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based. She wrote on her blog: “It appears to me that this was what was missing on the set: lesbians.”

Would this be a better film if it had been made by a lesbian? It seems fair to say it would at least include a more realistic depiction of lesbian sex, but even that assumes there is a normative sexual experience for gay women which could be definitively captured. I’m all for more female directors, but if the director of this particular film had been a woman, we would also have been deprived of a revealing critical controversy. The paradox of Blue is the Warmest Colour is this: almost all of the fuss the film has generated is misleading and yet it all enriches the experience of watching it.

“What can a man know about the experience of a woman?” This is not only a question that Dargis, Maroh and other critics of the film have asked, it is a question that the film itself asks too. During one scene a male artist at a party – who we might see as a stand-in for Kechiche – holds forth on the subject of art and the female orgasm, which “men try desperately to depict”. It is an admission of the limit of men’s ability to represent female experience, but also of Kechiche’s intention to keep trying anyway. A male director may not know what it is to be a woman, but since the differences between any two individuals are greater than generalised differences between genders, does that really matter? If we had no tolerance for failed empathy, we’d have to stop going to the cinema and stop falling in love too.

It’s important to remember that the Palme d’Or was awarded not only to Kechiche, but to Seydoux and Exarchopoulos too. Jury president Steven Spielberg called the three-way prize “an exceptional step” intended to recognise “the achievements of three artists”. It was an implicit rejection of  “auteur theory” which, in its insistence on the primacy of the (usually male) director, has long sidelined the creative contributions of women to film.

Challenging auteur theory won’t solve all our problems, of course. There must also be more female directors – a 2009 study found that only 9 per cent of Hollywood directors were women – but if we want them only so that they can better tell “women’s stories”, we are both limiting the creative imagination of women and underestimating the empathy-extending power of film. When Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Academy Award, it was with The Hurt Locker, a hyper-masculine film with an almost all-male cast. Kechiche should no more be censured for making his movie than Bigelow should be for making hers.

Instead of making this film, Kechiche could have written a novel about two young women having a lesbian affair and included in it a 40-page explicit description of sex. If he had, he would more likely have been the recipient of ridicule than a Booker Prize. Blue is the Warmest Colour is brilliant in part because it demonstrates how essential collaboration is to both the creation and the interpretation of cinema. Even if that collaboration is fraught with disagreement, as it evidently was on the set of Blue.

“What can a man know about the experience of two women?” Not a lot, perhaps, but then  “a man” didn’t make this film alone.

‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ is on general release from Friday

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable