The Problems With “Blue is the Warmest Color.”

The actresses of Blue is the Warmest Color share a kiss

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.)

The poster for Blue is the Warmest ColorBlue 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

by Tammy Oler
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Tammy Oler has been contributing to Bitch for over a decade. Her writing about pop culture and fandom has appeared in Slate, Ozy, Vulture, and Geek, among others.

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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Pretty good review. I'm so

Pretty good review. I'm so sick of reading reviews of this movie that discuss nothing but the controversy of the sex scene, while there is so much else going on in the film, and I'm glad this review discusses a wider spectrum.

What has stuck with me a week after first seeing the film are the performances by these two women, certainly the best I've seen this year. The only performance that comes close (for me) this past year is Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. It makes perfect sense to award them the Palme, they shaped this film just as much as the director has- I'm not quite sure I've ever seen another film where that is as apparent as it is here.

And wow, the cinematography was beautiful for the majority of the film. There is so much visceral imagery in this film, and that helps carry it too.

Correction - it's Manohla

Correction - it's <i>Manohla</i> Dargis.

Since when is a lesbian a (n

Since when is a lesbian a (n explicit?) sex scene (more) controversial then a (explicit) hetero sex-scene? Is that an American thing? I'd agree when it would be a gay sex scene but lesbian sex has been featured to death in „hetero“ porn so I'd be surprised if anyone would find this controversial in a fictional movie.

I was annoyed with the sex

I was annoyed with the sex scene but it had nothing to do with the fact that it was lesbian, its because I thought they were beyond excessive. I think it shows a lack of skill when a director (or writer) can't get their point across with out over the top exploitation. I understand sex scenes were necessary for this film but, just as with anything thats abrasive to look at, be it physical violence, emotional fighting, or sex on screen, when it is excessive it distracts the viewer, instead of seeing it as "wow look how passionate they are" it becomes "holy christ how long is this scene?"

Great film

As a woman who sleeps with woman, I have no problems with this movie. I do take issue with the pseudo-puritanical nonsense this country has when it comes to nudity and sexuality. Why should women be ashamed of their bodies and physical love with one another? The people who continue to make 10 minutes of a 3-hour movie the main conversation have completely missed the point of this film, which is a love story, not one of sex - sex is part of love and thus, finds it's way into this film. Not to exploit or degrade, but to inform and to move the story along and to detail the passion these characters feel. Prosthetics were used, it is not porn. The emotional levels Kechiche explores are rich, he tells a story in a way that is universal, regardless of the orientation of the characters. Regardless of controversy, the lead actors have both said they have no regrets and are proud of what they accomplished regardless of Kechiche's methods (which actually aren't rare for many of the great directors, often considered perfectionistic and with tyranistic tendencies). To discount this film because of some skin just goes to show how far we still have to go. If the leads can live with their choices, I'm sure we can, too. Rather than describing Kechiche as "cold and calculating" there is astonishing warmth to this film, layered in nearly every scene. The film is a masterpiece and in 2013, it's high time women stop being their own worse enemy and support stories about women and allow exploration of their bodies and sexuality to not be a crime.

female sexuality

I also enjoyed the movie and am disappointed in the criticisms of the movie that revolve around graphic sex and male gaze.

However the reviewer made a good observation that I also noticed. The scene during the party for Emma's first public portrait of Adele, the guy goes on about the mysticism and eroticism of female pleasure and how he believes it's more desirable than male's and etc...

This was the one time in the movie, the film felt kind of meta and it was obvious the director added that in to share his perspective on female sexuality and female sexual pleasure. That one scene was a bit too contrived and tripe for me.

Disgusting and morbid film

Julie Maroh wanted to give visibility to the difficulties found by a teenager during the process of her sexual acceptance, and introduces a great love story. And of course, no one denies the need for the sex exists, but it is treated in a completely different way: aesthetically tasteful, respect and sensitivity. The problem is not with the explicit sex whenever it's justified and well presented. The problem is when it was decided to show THIS WAY, through a lengthy scene with the sole purpose of creating curiosity and controversy. Which is the need of that? To provide a catalog of sexual positions to the audience? Those who have true sensitivity deeply despise this movie, so absurd and offensive as having made Ingrid Bergman fucking during 15 minutes in "Casablanca" (I don't need to see it to understand their passion, so why with Adele and Emma we need to see seven orgasms to "understand" their desire? Does Kechiche believe we are idiots?)... "Blue is the warmest" is nothing more than commercial pornography disguised as hypocrite intensity. Many lesbians are very tired of hearing so many raves about this movie. If someone wants to shoot porn, well, do it, but don't lie pretending it's a different thing and don't dare to disguise it as something else. It is clear that men heterosexual love lesbian theme and they feel attracted by it very much, but it's so obvious to deny it later with such hypocrisy that we feel offended and outraged. The type who is excited watching sex between two women is as old as the world, and this movie feeds the same fantasy inside porn ones. This director has used lesbians through a film that is nothing more than a sexist and morbid appropriation.
The true talent of a director is his ability to show something without having to resort to the easiest resources but suggesting them. The film would have won in strength and universal message, not stay in a concessive and superficiality plane. Of course, without these very provocative scenes would not have caused so much excitement in the review.
We all know very well what has been the main attraction of this movie: the lesbian themes and sex scenes, without them nobody had talked about this film. Try to substitute one of the girls by a boy, the film would have passed completely unnoticed. Precisely people has talked so much about it for being two women, if we change one of them for a guy, what remains? A deep story or anything extraordinary? Here is no plot, no depth, no brilliant script, no powerful message... only sex. With excellent original story that he could have done, with a truly, wonderful and profound original work, Kechiche stayed in the easiest (why remove that scene, vital to the plot, expulsion from home by their parents? That scene itself that was necessary and not that other of the "scissors"), I find it very sad.
In short: this is a perfect example of how to reduce a fantastic original material into shit and hypocritically want to sell it as art. With an unbelievable story he had in his hands, and a great plot to develop, Kechiche wasted footage in scissors and cunnilingus to the delight of critics and straight wankers.
We, as lesbians, have struggled a lot to achieve respect from society since past years (and it still costs a lot) and suddenly we see exposed ourselves and visible only to promote male erotic myth. It's very frustrating, because we feel as if everybody yell us when we express our disappoint: "You complain when you should applaud because we are showing lesbian life in an artistic and realistic way, you hysterical!!". The same thing when women are "forced" to acknowledge receiving the compliment on the street they have not asked for. The day we see penises on screen with the same frequency that we see boobs we will be able to talk about equality... and until I don't see a movie of the same director in which he recreates for 15 minutes in two men practicing "super justified" and " super beautiful" anal sex, I will still continue thinking that he is nothing more a vulgar onanist who has just wanted to spead out his own fantasy and many men's.

I adore this movie

I really think a lot of the criticism of this movie is just knee-jerk because it was directed by a man (a Man!!). If it was directed by a woman and was exactly the same movie I think many of the same people who deride with such over the top adjectives would be celebrating it with obverse, but still extreme, characterizations. My girlfriend liked it (though not as much as me) but she did object to it as yet another portrayal of "tragic" lesbian love. As if, irregardless of the human circumstances, we will always be punished by God and nature for our deviant ways. I can see her point but I adored it because of the performances, number one, but also because of the way it is presented; where the viewer is not force-fed implausible plot lines, just to "advance" the story. I like watching other girls who I find physically attractive making love, so I didn't find the sex scenes offensive, but again I can see the criticism of them from a political point of view. I found the movie to be a realistic celebration and reflexion of the human heart. I thought Adele was positively joyous and human at turns (marching against austerity measures, interacting with her kids, making love, eating, her freaky dancing, and her marvelous relationship with her hair) and tragically human at turns--her broken heart. I adored the movie but I can see where people who believe sex should not be portrayed in art would be horrified by this, they probably shouldn't watch it again.

Just porn

I am a lesbian and seeing this film has given me a deep disgust and rejection of seeing a morbid man as Kechiche sadly reduces us to the same old thing: mere objects of male curiosity and porn. Here there is no depth, no brilliant script, no plot, no transcendent issue… nothing more than 15 minutes of ridiculous wild sex for men with the intention of selling the movie disguised as the biggest love history story ever told, but it’s only pornography. If two men have been the protagonists (or a man and a woman), the director would never have recreated in a sex scene between them like this and the movie would not have been so brightfull for critics. This movie offers nothing more than the curiosity of female homosexuality and especially the explicit images to prove it. If the couple had been heterosexual and if realistic sex had been treated in a more subtle manner, this movie never had been so praised. But of course, heterosexual critics liked it a lot and for that reason this film won Cannes. It sucks. What a shame.
There was a great movie to be made from Julie Maroh’s thoughtful and ground-breaking graphic novel. Sadly, this film – despite all the critical acclaim – isn’t as good or real as it could have been. It’s very much a film for men and by men.
Sorry, but I can’t admire nothing in a film with a male director abusing actresses and putting his pornish fantasies all over the screen and calling it art.

You're absolutely not right.

You're absolutely not right. The movie's sex scenes have nothing in common with porn and male gaze. There are just two women who love each other and have a lot of pleasure with each other without any man. By the way, that's the most unbearable thing for men: to realize that women can have orgasms without their participation.

Very bad

The sooner this piece of filth fades into obscurity the better. The director is an abusing, childish pig. NO ONE has yet made a convincing argument for denying lesbian sex in the film are porn scenes. The lesbian who wrote the book hates it. I don't really know what else needs to be said to be honest... But well, what did we expect from a straight Turkish man shooting a lesbian movie? A fetish porn film made by men foe men, nothing more.

First, I am amazed at how the

First, I am amazed at how the length of the sex scenes is grossly exaggerated. Where is this '10 minute sex scene'?? The entire three hour film has less than 10 minutes of collective sex in its entirety.

Second, I wonder if readers are aware that Kechiche gave the actresses autonomy over how they wanted to improvise the scenes, so those sex scenes everyone is freaking out about actually have far more to do with the actresses choices than Kechiche's direction. He actually allows far more freedom and choice in performances than most directors do and allowed the actresses to wear prosthetics, surely he could be far worse. Directors being difficult to work with is nothing new, just ask Hitchcock, James Cameron, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick... performances are often achieved at the hands of a manipulative director, that is how movie making has always happened and "movie magic" is created, only other actors just don't talk about it. I'm not defending it, I'm just saying if you are going to attack this particular director for this, you might as well acknowledge it is an industry standard and always has been.To suggest that the actresses are "constantly undercut by Kechiche's direction is a joke. Their performances won awards all over the world and their careers are forever changed because of his direction and the freedom he gave his actresses to create on their terms within frameworks he provided. Funny to mention the sex scenes he directed as "cold and calculating" when they show raw passion between two people who love each other so much they just want to devour each other, and he even captures the vulnerability and emotional fragility of the moment by focusing the camera on Adele's emotional reaction of this magical first experience for the character unlike a lot of directors who would just focus on sex and nothing else. In fact, he goes into this extreme a level of detail with every type of scene he films, from eating to sleeping to fighting to even the party scene, so it's not like this scene is any more in-depth and overly detailed than any other. That is his directorial style and he approached the sex as he did everything else.

Third - about those sex scenes, I don't know why people are using words like 'mechanical' or calculated to describe the love scene. It's almost as if people can't accept that a young woman actually has a strong sexuality and that she wants to express it with the person she's been obsessing over, which is what this scene is about. The sex is completely appropriate as this is a movie about being a teenager and adolescence and love and lust and obsession, and sex perfectly ties in with all those themes. This movie wouldn't be telling the truth without these scenes. This is what real life looks like, he isn't trying to sugar coat it for anyone. I wouldn't describe these scenes as hollow or joyless, Adele's character experiences a milestone and she has a strong emotional reaction from it and the characters are finally having a go at it and enjoying themselves. The actresses to, at parts. The funny thing is that they can't seem to decide which side of the fence they are on, the actresses that complained about Kechiche are the same to call him a genius and Adele admitted the sex scenes were initially fun and Lea Seydoux said it was thrilling to take on that more masculine side in the bedroom and lead the sex scenes, so lets all leave the actresses alone. In Seydoux's words, she doesn't understand why Americans make sex such a big deal and are so accepting of violence and talked about how beautiful nudity is, even posing nude in a magazine recently. American viewers in particular seem to have the biggest set of pipes in protest to these scenes while the actresses survived it just fine, issues they had with the director were largely about other things - French culture accepts sex and nudity as the regular part of everyday life this is and in France, 12-year olds can watch it, not sure why people here act like this is all surprising.

The last line of this review makes no sense, i.e. "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." In case you didn't get it, quivering lips, hungry mouths, and snotty noses are all ways of conveying the depth of their emotional journeys which was beautifully not only captured authentically in this film but the emotions of love have never been explored in more depth than what Kechiche created. That people are acting like the sex scenes are the be-all-end-all of this film just goes to show how short-sighted they are, focusing all their chat on 10 minutes of a three hour movie, during which time the other 2 hours and 50 minutes are devoted to the character's emotional journeys.

Lastly, all this focus on the film being directed by a man is so prejudiced. We should be applauding the fact that there is actually a coming-of-age movie about a young woman directed by anyone, man or woman - how many of those can you think of? That a man chose to direct a movie about this subject matter nonetheless portray the love between two women so matter-of-factly and poignantly and treated it just like any other relationship is a sign of progress, not squashing or trampling women's rights. The author who is a lesbian even wrote an ending where her protagonist dies because she can't handle the loss of the breakup and turns to drugs. I would argue Kechiche is far smarter than that and had more respect for the character and believed she was stronger than that, letting the audience decide her fate and not condeming her necessarily to death. Just because this film was directed by a man and acted in by two straight women doesn't in any way detract from what was created. They are actors and artists, they aren't supposed to be playing themselves or telling or creating their own story. That's what creative liberties are all about. Beautiful film and fully deserving of all the global accolades it has received. Kudos to all three who are clearly geniuses in their own right and worthy of their Palm d'Or's.


The sex scenes in Blue Is The Warmest Color was the most vanilla heteronormative lesbian sex possible. Couldn't they get at least a little creative? However, its nice to see a beautiful film documenting queer passion. There are so few it's hard not to get excited when a work of art like this actually explores a lesbian love affair. Loved the intimate portraiture of the characters, the de-saturated color, and the stretches of silence balancing the moments of extreme, snotty, emotion.

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