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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