By the time it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the French film Blue is the Warmest Color was well on its way to being one of the most highly praised—and most controversial—films of the year. Blue centers on the sexual awakening of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a high school student, and her love affair with Emma (Lea Seydoux), an older, self-assured art student. Shot in a naturalistic style by writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche and featuring riveting performances by its two lead actresses, the three-hour film charts the women’s relationship over a decade, their coming-of-age, and how they experience the loss of first love after their break-up.
A huge amount of the talk surrounding Blue was (and continues to be) focused on an explicit, ten-minute scene in which the two young actresses engage in simulated, unchoreographed sex. Revelations that the two actresses wore prosthetic vaginas over their real vaginas during the scene’s ten-day shoot have only served to create more buzz about it. (If you’re curious, do a quick Google search for “blue is the warmest color fake vaginas” and you’ll see just how much these prosthetic vulvas have captured our collective cultural attention.)
Blue generated a raft of rave reviews at Cannes, but a handful of critics including Magnolia Dargis took issue with Kechiche’s depiction of female sexuality. Conflict over the film increased when Julie Maroh, creator of the graphic novel on which the film is based, issue a scathing critique on her blog that the adaptation had robbed its female characters of agency and emotional depth, and equated the film to pornography. There’s been no stopping the controversies since then. During a press tour during the Telluride film festival, the film’s stars described terrible treatment at the hands of Kechiche during the film’s overly long and grueling five-month shoot, which then led to two months of public sparring between the actresses and director. (Over at Vulture, Anna Silman has created a handy timeline of the feud.) Even the film’s controversies have controversies: after New York’s IFC Center issued a public statement saying that it would allow teens to see Blue despite the film’s NC-17 rating, they came under fire from the Parents Television Council for disregarding the rating. Yet, even as the controversies pile up and the critiques of the film’s depiction of lesbian sexuality continue to increase, Blue continues to achieve widespread critical acclaim.
In some ways, that acclaim is merited. Actresses Exarchopoulos and Seydoux give two of the finest performances you’ll see on screen this year. And the film is often quite moving; it captures the devouring feeling of first love in a strong and palpable way. But Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are constantly undercut by Kechiche’s direction, which often seems more about his directorial desires than the motivations of the story’s protagonists. Midway through the film, a male character at a party full of artists describes the mystical and elusive essence of female sexuality. It’s a useful thumbnail for understanding Kechiche’s cold and calculating approach to the now-notorious sex scene, in which the actresses contort themselves mechanically and with great solemnity into a variety of sexual positions. To be sure, there’s an element of voyeurism at work, but it’s also clear that Kechiche is putting lesbian sexuality on display to show off his boldness as a director. The result is hollow and joyless, especially compared to the vibrant intimacy Exarchopoulos and Seydoux bring to so many other moments together on-screen.
It’s telling that the Steven Spielberg-led jury at Cannes formally recognized the two actresses along with the director when awarding the Palme d’Or—the first time actors have ever been acknowledged along with a director. Combined with the performances of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, the sweeping scope of Kechiche’s film is admirable. It’s just too bad that Kechiche is more interested in capturing the details of Adèle’s and Emma’s emotions—he spares the audience no tears, quivering lips, hungry mouths, or snotty noses—than in conveying a real sense of their emotional journeys.
Watch the trailer for Blue is the Warmest Color: