Film Commentary: You Know It When You See It — Desire and “Blue is the Warmest Color”
Without its many steamy lesbian sex interludes tarting up what could otherwise be classified as a routine narrative, would “Blue is the Warmest Color” have garnered so many rave reviews and prizes?
By Peter Keough
… – The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing. — James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Not that there’s anything wrong with pornography and didacticism. It’s fair to say that Joyce did not disapprove of either. They might be “improper,” but they are still “art.”
Joyce was no prude: not only did he write filthy little love letters to his wife Nora, but in 1933 his masterpiece Ulysses was arraigned in a New York Southern District Federal Court before Judge John Munro Woolsey on charges of obscenity (in a landmark decision, Woolsey, an enlightened judge and not a bad literary critic, explained why the book wasn’t pornographic.)
And as for didacticism, you can’t get much more didactic than does Stephen Daedalus in the multi-page discourse on Thomistic aesthetics quoted in part above.
If Joyce doesn’t have anything against “improper art,” who am I to argue? So it’s a qualification and not a condemnation to say that, by the above definition, Blue Is the Warmest Color falls into the category of “improper art.” [Warning: Plot Spoiler Alert!]
That’s not how most critics see it, however. The film has gotten nothing but high art high fives since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. It scores an 89% favorable rating at Rotten Tomatoes, an 88 at Metacritic, and is currently on a victory lap of awards from nationwide critics groups in preparation for a seeming surefire Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Nonetheless, though almost lost in the near universal praise for the film, Manohla Dargis’s dissenting article “The Trouble With ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’” in the October 25 of the New York Times pointed out something would seem glaringly obvious, but for some reason has been mostly ignored: The director, Abdellatif Kechiche, really likes women’s asses.
Is that really a problem? Well, it is a distraction. Involvement in the characters’ ongoing drama takes a detour once Kechiche’s camera probes their anatomy as they engage in lengthy male fantasies of girl-on-girl action. The scenes, except for potential gynecological (educational film?) purposes, seem designed to arouse not contemplation, but desire. Or loathing, if one is of an intolerantly moralistic bent.
Speaking of moralism, maybe this aspect of the film wouldn’t have bothered me so much had Kechiche not indulged in it with such self-righteousness. The film flaunts its sex scenes in such a humorless and disingenuously sanctimonious way that discourages any serious discussion about them being a turn-on. If the exhibitionism is not for the sake of the viewer, then, judging by his leering lens, it is for Kechiche. Perceived in this way, the film is a variation on the Emperor’s New Clothes, with the actors’ nudity exposing the director’s pretentions and predilections.
Be forewarned, then: if you want to enjoy the film as the intense and moving love story it claims to be (and despite everything, sometimes is), don’t pay attention to the man behind the camera indulging his voyeurism, fetishism, and his power over women. And if you find yourself stimulated a bit during the relentless scenes of two naked, beautiful young women engaged in energetic, artfully lit, exquisitely shot explicit fucking, don’t worry, it just means you’re emotionally involved.
I think Joyce would regard this explanation with a skeptical smile and say, who are you kidding? I mean, where’s the stasis?
Instead of the sex scenes serving to intensify the love story, the love story exists to justify the sex scenes. Without those steamy interludes tarting up what could otherwise be classified as a routine narrative, would this film have garnered so many rave reviews and prizes?
Well, maybe “routine” is a bit harsh. I admit that at times the film stirred my tear ducts a bit and made me reflect on the eternal verities of life and love, my mind raised beyond desire and loathing to a condition of stasis, particularly in the scenes near the end…
But let’s take it from the beginning. Fifteen-year-old Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, who looks at first like she’s barely pubescent), doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. She is also uncertain about her sexual inclinations. After an unsatisfying clinch with the class hunk, and a confused kiss with a female classmate, she catches the wry eye of Emma (Léa Seydoux), who is older and – as can be seen by her short-cropped blue-dyed hair, insinuating half-smile, and the way she smokes a cigarette – worldly wise and artistic. She looks like she knows what she wants and what to do with it when she gets it. And, by the way, why is the twenty-something Emma hanging around a schoolyard?
Be that as it may, the two fall in love, or so you assume because they spend so much time in the sack. They do have occasional discussions about philosophy – after all, this is a French movie. Emma quotes Sartre while pontificating about the meaning of life and freedom, and the irrepressibly unsophisticated Adèle brings it all down to earth by observing that existentialism is pretty much summed up in the Bob Marley song “Get Up, Stand-up.”
Deep. Meanwhile, not everyone is keen on their relationship. Some of Adèle’s classmates get nasty. Of course, since Adèle is by far the prettiest girl in school, the ugly girls are the meanest to her. They corner Adèle, taunt her, and accuse her of ogling their asses. Dream on, ugly girls! Not even Kechiche is interested in looking at your posteriors.
But such petty obstacles can’t deter true existential love. Instead, the usual culprits break it up: the passage of time, the inevitability of change, and the vagaries of human nature. (Did I mention Being and Nothingness?) Blue’s big insight: relationships don’t last – deal with it.
Adèle and Emma’s seemingly non-traditional relationship devolves into sadly traditional roles, with Adele becoming the docile drudge who waits alone at home and Emma the self-absorbed artist who increasingly neglects her as she pursues her career. In one dinner scene, Emma barks over the phone at an art dealer who wants to exploit the lesbian sexual imagery of her work – imagine! – while Adèle feebly offers her a cup of coffee and a slice of buttered bread to get her attention.
Such is the fate of those with low self-esteem involved in an unequal relationship. At parties Emma’s arty friends are bemused at Adèle’s ignorance of Klimt and Schiele, and then compliment her on her prettiness. Adèle tries to keep up with all the fancy talk, but all she really wants to do is cook and clean and pose for Emma’s erotic paintings. That, and tell stories to her classes of preschoolers. (Emma suggests that Adèle try writing children’s books, but the matter is wisely dropped). Adèle tries hard to make it work, but her efforts only result in more loneliness and neglect, and finally, infidelity, jealousy, and rage.
To his credit, Kechiche – as in his brilliant The Secret of the Grain – is masterly when depicting the passage of time, a subtlety that is the antithesis of his approach to the sex scenes. The years pass unnoticed until you realize that Adèle is no longer in high school, but has a job, and that the pregnant woman whom she met at a party now has a three-year-old child. Had Kechiche practiced such artful restraint throughout the film, he might have attained the elusive “esthetic emotion” that Joyce describes.
Instead, Kechiche the pseudo-realist decides that truth requires gawking at some bodily function. In the film’s final break-up scene, for example, the focus of attention shifts from the feelings of devastation experienced by the characters to a close-up of the growing stream of snot dripping from Adèle’s nose. Give the girl a tissue, for crying out loud!
Maybe Kechiche here is leaning towards the loathing side of the desire/loathing dichotomy that Joyce was talking about. In any case, just as the spectacle of slamming vulvas and extreme close-ups of enthusiastic cunnilingus distract from the love in the love scenes, so, too, does this prolonged, gratuitous booger deflate any sense of tragedy when they break up.
Maybe now I’m just getting petty. Like my annoyance at the eating scenes. Always spaghetti, with a greenish chunky sauce that sticks to lips and faces and moustaches and is clearly visible as a half-masticated pulp when people yammer on about Klimt and Schiele with their mouths open. Why is there never a tissue or napkin available when people need them in this movie?
They had far better table manners in The Secret of the Grain. Maybe that’s why I prefer it: it is a film about food in the same way this is a film about love, and it does not need to show the biological processes of chewing, digestion, and excretion to make its point.
Another thing – Emma’s artwork bugs me. Here is one of those situations in which everyone in the film wildly acclaims the creative work of a character who is an artist or writer. And then some of the writing is read out loud, or the paintings hang in a gallery, and you say to yourself, wow, that is really, really bad.
Theoretically, perhaps, Emma’s paintings serve the purpose of setting up a self-reflexive conceit in which the male gaze (Kechiche’s) is directed at the female gaze (Emma’s) which is being directed at an objectified woman (Adèle). But when you come right down to it, the paintings are vulgar, soft-core pornography hypocritically disguised as art. And so, at its worst, is this overpraised movie.
Peter Keough, currently a contributor to The Boston Globe, had been the film editor of The Boston Phoenix from 1989 until its demise in March. He edited Kathryn Bigelow Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2013) and is now editing a book on children and movies for Candlewick Press.