Blue Is the Warmest Color is the best film I’ve seen this year. It’s a tragic love story about an artist well-versed in wine and philosophy, a middle-class kindergarten teacher, and the gap between them that erotic passion isn’t strong enough to bridge. The film is rich in realism and social commentary, but a ten minute-long sex scene between two the beautiful young stars has overshadowed conversation. I sat down with Lea Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, the two young actresses whose lithe bodies were intertwined in the aforementioned scene, and when I noted the film’s class consciousness in a question, Seydoux’s response was surprising. “You know you are the first person to say that.”
They had interview after interview lined up that day, and probably since the pair, as well as the film’s director Abdellatif Kechiche, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in July. Exarchopoulos was sprawled on the couch, asking for a Red Bull en Francais. They were exhausted from talking about this movie, and yet no one wanted to talk about class. Seydoux continued, “I think the real thing in the film is about the social condition. The fact that they come from two different social backgrounds. I think it’s why they don’t communicate.”
Exachopoulos jumped in, “That’s why after years they are in two different worlds. She doesn’t really respect mine and I do not really understand hers.” Exachopoulos’ character, who borrows her own name Adèle, begins as a high school student protesting tuition hikes and masturbating in her bedroom to Emma, a blue-haired stranger played by Seydoux. While Adèle falls in love with someone who happens to be a woman, Emma being a lesbian is integral to her identity as a person and an artist.
Seydoux explains of Emma, “She’s in love with Adèle. At the beginning we think that when you love someone you can love who you want. Like for example, you are a woman, you can love another woman. But the problem, the real problem, what creates the distance is finally something unconscious. And what’s unconscious? Your social milieu. That’s a very important thing.”
It’s a very important thing that everyone likes to ignore, especially when there’s girl-on-girl copula that blurs the line between acting and reality. As a twenty-something who grew up with porn at her fingertips, I did not find the sex scene too graphic as many have accused it of being. And I’m truly shocked anyone walked out of the theatre. And for a film that clocks in at nearly three hours, and devotes long stretches of time to conversations about art and philosophy, I don’t think the scene in question is too long, either.
But the question of whether the sex and nakedness is gratuitous is different from whether it’s challenging or furthering a hetero worldview. Kechiche is not a lesbian. Julie Maroh, the writer of the graphic novel the screenplay is adapted from is however a lesbian, and she has been critical of the film’s representation of “so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn and made [her] feel ill at ease.”
Kechiche seems to have some awareness of his male fantasy version of female sexuality. There’s a very self-conscious moment where a male character in the film waxes poetic about the feminine orgasm, and Emma accuses him of mystifying female sexuality. “In general, we see more women naked in the film,” notes Seydoux, “because it’s always a male’s point of view, of course. Because there are more male directors than women.” And a male director’s privilege extends beyond what we see on the screen, and to the experience on set. Seydoux told me she did not feel empowered by the scenes. “It was something else.” (It is worth noting that since the Cannes premiere, Kechiche and Seydoux have since fallen out and publicly sparred, which culminated in a scathing op-ed he published last week.)
It’s hard not to think of the aftermath to Bernado Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, and the sex scene between Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando that shocked audiences and smashed the prevailing standard of on-screen explicitness. Like Exarchopoulos, Schneider was only 19. After a famous scene involving butter, Schneider said, “I felt humiliated and to be honest, a little raped.” And while Schneider endured only one take, the simulated sex for Blue is the Warmest Color was filmed over ten days.
Forty years later, the power balance between young female actors and older male directors has changed little. But while Schneider felt forever recognized only as a sex symbol and not an artist, Seydoux and Exarchopoulos received the Palme d’Or and were respected as equals with Kechiche. It was the first time actors received the honor in addition to the director. And the only other woman to ever win was Jane Campion.
For Exarchopoulos, the magnitude of this didn’t sink in right away. “I didn’t realize. And then one day when I’m in the subway, feeling sad in Paris, I’m just thinking about Cannes this year and I’m like ‘Yeaaahhh!'”