or La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2
- YEAR: 2013
- DIRECTOR: Abdellatif Kechiche
- KEY ACTORS: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux
- CERTIFICATE: 18
- IMDB SCORE: 7.7
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 89%
SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ It does pass the Bechdel test – the two main characters are women and the main relationship is between the two of them!
✔️ The cast are definitely fuckable. I’m straight but there’s no denying that they are both beautiful and incredibly hot together.
❌ I can’t say that it inspired fantasies though. I’m not that curious about having sex with someone with a vulva so while I admired how hot their sex was, it wasn’t something that I fantasised about afterwards.
✔️ The rewatchable question is a difficult one. It is three hours long. And as an English speaker, it is entirely in subtitles. But, wow, it was engrossing and the time seemed to fly by! And I would definitely watch it again so, yes, rewatchable!
✔️ And it is sex positive. Sex is an important part of their relationship and, while there are some sex negative moments with homophobia and slut shaming, they are clearly positioned as wrong and damaging.
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: homophobia, gaslighting]
I’ve been putting off watching Blue is the Warmest Colour. It’s just so long! At roughly 3 hours, it is a daunting undertaking on its own without even considering that it has subtitles and, well, I was never quite in the right mood to watch it.
I’ve also been putting off watching it for this blog as I’m worried that I’m not the right person to watch and review it from a sex and relationships perspective. Blue is the Warmest Colour is famously a lesbian love story that contains a frankly notorious extended sex scene, and much of the criticism I’ve read concerned this scene. Is it porny? Does it realistically show sex between two people with vulvas? Is it a good portrayal of a lesbian relationship? Did the cis male director produce a film that simply followed his cis male gaze and his heterosexual fantasises of two women fucking? And as I’m a straight cis woman with no bicuriosity and I don’t watch porn, can I really talk about this movie with any authority?
The answer is probably no, but I really loved Blue is the Warmest Colour so I hope you won’t mind if I do try to write about it anyway! And, obviously, let me know if my cishetero privilege is showing – I’m always happy to learn from my mistakes.
Blue is the Warmest Colour is the story of Adèle (Exarchopoulos) – the French title translates to ‘The Life of Adèle, Chapters 1 and 2’ – who is a young woman in her last year of school. She falls in love with Emma (Seydoux), a slightly older art student and they have a highly charged, intensely emotional and hugely sexual relationship that later falls apart with as much energy and charge and emotion.
And that’s basically the plot. It’s simply the story of a relationship, from beginning to end, and I worry that much of the intrigue around Blue is the Warmest Colour stems from the fact that it was about *whispers* lesbians. While it is undoubtably a beautiful movie, would it be talked about in the same way if it was about a heterosexual relationship? When seen from that perspective, the story itself is almost a cliche – a young woman is shown the joys of sex by an older, wiser man and falls in love with him, only to feel excluded from his creative life. Left to do all the cooking and feeling lost and lonely, she strays. When her cheating is discovered, her lover kicks her out, making her feel guilty for the betrayal without ever acknowledging their own flaws, and the young woman has to start all over again. But while this is a very familiar story, it is not usually told as a queer story.
I feel that this is one of Blue is the Warmest Colour’s huge strengths. It cannot be denied that the promise of lesbian sex would have attracted a lot of curiosity and there is a reason why it played such a big part of the movie’s marketing, but the relationship was otherwise quite, well, normal, for want of a better word, which cannot often be said about homosexual relationships on screen. Ashton Cooper’s article for Jezebel was one of very few critical responses that I read from someone who is actually queer, and they agree: ‘mainstream portrayals of lesbians often feel overdetermined. We’re not watching people fall in love; we’re watching them BE LESBIANS. That is not the case in Blue. I have never seen a portrayal of a lesbian relationship on screen that captures the experience as truthfully as this film has.’
Is there something intrinsically different about queer relationships? Of course, society places very different pressures on them and queer people do face systemic discrimimation in ways that heterosexual people do not, but is the love between them and the internal workings of their relationships different from that of straight couples? I didn’t think it was and neither did Julie Morah, who wrote the original graphic novel. She has said that she has always been interested in the ‘banalisation of homosexuality’, hoping that making queer relationships more mainstream and ‘normal’ would stop LGBT+ people become targets of abuse.
And Adèle and Emma do have a ‘normal’ relationship that breaks down just as relationships sometimes do. More, I was fascinated to see what was essentially a patriarchal relationship occurring in a queer partnership between two women. I am sorry if I am incorrectly overlaying my cishetero perspective onto their relationship, but I kind of loved that there was so much about the problems within their relationship that was relatable and familiar. Which is exactly how it should be! Love is love is love and I believe that the wide variety in relationship types and styles extends into queer relationships too, rather than queer love being a category on its own.
And so I felt really sorry for Adèle as I don’t believe her relationship with Emma was healthy. At the beginning, she was the ingénue, innocent to the ways of the world and needing someone to show her the way, and she never recovered any sort of equality with Emma. She meets her for the first time in a lesbian bar and has to be told that she’s accidentally ordered a ‘bulldyke beer.’ Outside of their sexuality, Emma teaches Adèle about philosophy and art, but there was no suggestion that Adèle taught Emma anything in return. Adèle’s desire to be a teacher is secondary, emphasised by Emma’s insistence that Adèle is a writer when, in fact, all Adèle has written is her personal diary. I can only assume Emma has read this, hopefully with consent, but it is clear that she thinks Adèle should be more than just a teacher, even though that is Adèle’s dream job.
Emma simply didn’t listen to Adèle or pay any attention to her desires. As another example, Adèle is admired for her ‘voracious’ appetite but doesn’t eat shellfish – something Emma forgets and just laughs off when Adèle is invited to meet her first girlfriend’s parents for the first time and is confronted by an entirely shellfish-based feast. Adèle eats it anyway rather than be awkward in refusing but I really resented Emma’s dismissal of Adèle’s preferences. It was a huge red flag for me!
And regardless of whether the culprit presents as a woman or not, this *is* patriarchal. Emma considers herself to be more important than Adèle and so Adèle has to fit into a lesser position. Blue is the Warmest Colour emphasises this structure at Emma’s party when the movie jumps forward a few years – Emma works the room, having erudite conversations with her friends, while Adèle does all of the cooking and preparation, serving food and topping up drinks, having turned down an invitation from her own friends – colleagues even, does Adèle have her own friends? Adèle isn’t her own person; she is there to support Emma, be her ‘muse and inspiration.’
I also felt that there was a definite suggestion that Emma was gaslighting Adèle. (I really didn’t like Emma!) Adèle ends up cheating on Emma when she goes out alone as a response to being left home alone while Emma stays out late with Lise, a friend from the art world. Emma and Lise have previously been seen chatting conspiratorially and sitting too close to be just friends, mirroring the accusations Adèle’s school friends throw at her earlier in the movie, but when Emma discovers Adèle’s infidelity, she goes ballistic, calling her a whore and a slut and throwing her out of the house. Did Adèle’s indiscretion touch a nerve? Because, of course, when they meet up years later, Emma is living with Lise. They did get together, just as Adèle feared. Cool, cool, cool, cool…
While Blue is the Warmest Colour is a very long film, it didn’t feel that long when I was watching it as it seemed an appropriate length of time for the story that was trying to be told. The emotional highs and lows wouldn’t have felt so high or so low without having committed the time to the relationship that the movie asks us to. And I believe that the focus on sex was also important to help us understand them as a couple. I really believed that they had incredible sex and I understood perhaps why Adèle stayed when she was otherwise so miserable: ‘the sex mainly served to illustrate the bond between the two women so that their eventual relationship problems carried an element of intensity that viewers could understand in intimate detail.’
Of course, the sex scenes are also important because they are the source of much of the controversy surrounding Blue is the Warmest Colour.
Most of the criticism surrounds the fact that the film was directed by a straight cis man and both of the actors were straight cis women. They were filming something of which they had no personal experience and, according to Julie Morah, this was obvious: ‘this was what was missing on the set: lesbians.’ She felt that the straight attempt to show lesbian sex ended up looking like ‘a brutal surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn and made everyone feel ill at ease…The heteronormative laughed because they don’t understand it and find the scene ridiculous. The gay and queer people laughed because it’s not convincing at all, and find it ridiculous.’ Even Exarchopoulos, who played Adèle, stated that she was ‘not that familiar with lesbian sex.’
And I think that’s were the main complaints originate – if Kechiche wasn’t filming real, accurate sex between two people with vulvas, what did he think he was filming and where did he get his inspiration? Lesbian porn? Or his own fantasies? Manohla Dargis from the New York Times felt that the focus on arses and open mouths and splayed bodies was more representative of ‘Kechiche’s desires than anything else,’ commenting that ‘Abdellatif Kechiche, I realized fairly quickly, likes a tight end.’
And Kechiche hasn’t tried to allay concerns about his male gaze when filming Blue is the Warmest Colour. In an interview with Flicks and Bits, a film website that now seems to have been deleted but which is quoted in a number of the reviews, Kechiche said that he was filming what he found beautiful: ‘we shot them like paintings, like sculptures. We spent a lot of time lighting them to ensure they would look beautiful.’ Unfortunately, this is the definition of objectification and shows that Kechiche chose to portray the two women in an idealised fashion, exacerbating the sense of voyeurism we feel in watching and focussing a male gaze. Adèle and Emma are seen ‘in decorative, artistic poses [rather] than in the wild, messy jumble of mouths and limbs we expect’ and, as Michelle Juergen wrote for Salon, this ‘artistic rendering effectively creates a perspective reminiscent of Lolita: we are not meant to know the characters; we are meant to watch them, to admire them, and to idealise them.’ To quote art critic John Berger, ‘Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.’ Again, cool, cool, cool, cool…
The first scene when Adèle was wanking was first time that I believed those critics that felt the sex was too much like porn and like a cis man’s fantasy. Personally, I don’t expose my own breasts when masturbating, gaining the same pleasure from reaching beneath my shirt, and I don’t arch my back as if I’m displaying my body to someone watching. Adèle’s wanking technique really did look like she was wanking for show, as if it were porn, and didn’t match the positions that women actually choose when masturbating.
As for the rest of the sex, I’m less sure. I know it was hot. I know it looked like a lot of fun! And yes, the women were incredibly beautiful and it was incredibly stylish but I’m tempted to conclude that Kechiche didn’t get it all wrong. Perhaps its simply because there isn’t enough vulva-on-vulva sex on screen in general but I was expecting it to be worse! Cooper from Jezebel felt that ‘the sex in Blue is more similar to the sex I have than any other lesbian sex I’ve ever seen on screen’ They did criticise ‘his preoccupation with scissoring…not because some lesbians don’t like scissoring, but because it seems to be the go-to position for people who have no idea how two women might have sex aside from rubbing their junk against one another.’
But I think that’s OK. I think any issues that I have with the male gaze and the fact that this lesbian story has been made for a straight audience are diluted by the fact that it is a queer story that has been made for the mainstream. As Manohla Dargis reminded us, ‘feminists have taken issues with old Hollywood representations of women, but at least its star system provided a rich body of work…[Blue is the Warmest Colour] is a three-hour movie about women, a rare object of critical inquiry perhaps especially for American men working in the male-dominated field of movie critics.’ People did start to talk about feminist and queer issues because of this film!
And Blue is the Warmest Colour was very successful! It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and has a notoriety that means people will be watching it for years to come. And don’t forget that it was given the Palme d’Or ‘just hours after masses of French demonstrators poured into the streets of Paris to protest France’s new law allowing same-sex marriage and adoption.’ Homophobia was still an issue in 2013 and it is still an issue now. We do need more queer represention on screen. So when that mainstream audience sees Blue is the Warmest Colour, they’ll see a film that shows an LGBT+ coming of age and the difficulties that can entail, but they’ll also see a common or garden relationship. They’ll see that this queer relationship ‘isn’t quite so “queer” as they may have thought.’ And I do feel that that is progressive and it’s wonderful.
Oh, I so nearly forgave Kechiche for being such a man behind a camera until I discovered that he was actually just a massive dick, who also had a camera.
Both Exarchopoulos and Seydoux have said that they won’t work with Kechiche again . They described the experience of making the film as abusive. Talk of repetitive takes and endless reshooting reminded me of the worst of Kubrick and when Kechiche described the role of an actor as ‘one of a spoiled child,’ I had flashbacks of the abuse Adrian Lyne inflicted on Kim Basinger in Nine ½ Weeks. I was also more than a little freaked out to discover that Adèle wasn’t originally the name of Exarchopoulos’s character – Kechiche used so much footage taken when Exarchopoulos was relaxing out of character that he had to change her character name to explain why so many people were calling her Adèle. Which is just creepy.
And that’s before we come to how Kechiche chose to film the sex scenes. Since the fall out from #MeToo, it has become much more common to use an ‘intimacy coordinator’ such as Ita O’Brien to make actors more comfortable with intimate scenes. O’Brien emphasises that sex scenes should be choreographed as closely as fight scenes to prevent actors from accidentally crossing boundaries or becoming uncomfortable, but this was not Kechiche’s style. Exarchopoulos told the Daily Beast that he had specifically wanted to shoot without choreography and her words almost make it sound like he’d wanted them to actually have sex, describing how he’d wanted the scenes to be ‘more like special sex scenes…once we were on the shoot, I realized that he really wanted us to give him everything. Most people don’t even dare to ask the things that he did.’ Exarchopoulos and Seydoux had only just met. They had no chance to become comfortable with each other before they were thrown into a 10 day shoot when they were naked and touching each other. Apparently they had prostheses over their actual genitals but, really. Reading their experiences was honestly horrifying and I think they were being quite restrained when they described the shoot as ‘horrible.’
And it has ruined Blue is the Warmest Colour for me. I had marvelled at the raw emotion that Seydoux and Exarchopoulos produced, the pain in their final fight and their emotional exhaustion by the end of the movie, but I fear it wasn’t all acting and that adds a layer of discomfort to the viewing that isn’t needed. Did Seydoux need to hit Exarchopoulos so many times to ensure that her slap in their break up packed that powerful emotional punch, or could they have achieved that same effect long before the 100th take? We’ll never know. But I fear that that’s why Spielberg insisted that all three of them – Exarchopoulos, Seydoux and Kechiche – were honoured with the Palme d’Or, rather than just the director as is usual practice.
They’d earned it.