Before the 1960s, if you wanted to see sex on screen, your only option was to frequent a certain kind of seedy and furtive movie theater colloquially known in France as the Blue Cinema. The porn industry brought sex to the small screen, and watching sex became a more common if very private activity. It is only recently—through a confluence of boundary pushing in cable television and independent cinema—that graphic sex is becoming more common in mainstream film. In effect, sex on screen has come full circle, and today, films like Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color have brought graphic sex back into the public experience of the movie theater.
The color blue plays a focal symbolic role in this French film about a young woman who falls in lust and love with a blue-haired art student. Appearing in splashes throughout the film, blue comes to represent the two women’s passion and sensuality, and there can be no doubt that the filmmaker fully considered the color’s many-layered symbolic value. Though perhaps an obscure layer of significance, the historically pornographic implication of the color blue seems particularly fitting for this film, given the controversy surrounding its portrayal of lesbian sex.
Since Blue is the Warmest Color took home the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, critics and feminist-lesbian writers have been engaged in a discursive back-and-forth over the film’s seven-minute-long, profoundly graphic sex scene. It is either a courageous mastery of brutal realism, a fitting culmination of the character’s mutually voracious attraction, or an exploitative work of pornography.
With very few exceptions, the lesbian sex we see in mainstream film is presented with the same intent as its counterparts in pornography—for the viewership and pleasure of a male spectator. Plenty of Kechiche’s critics argue that his sex scenes belong to this pornographic tradition. Regardless of the filmmaker’s intent, plenty of movie-goers will certainly consume the sex scenes with a voyeuristic gaze. But there is another reason, outside the pornographic context, that viewers might want to watch the sex in Blue is the Warmest Color.
Any basic sociology class will teach you that we learn to define and construct our own identities through the images we see in mass media. Often this is a sub-conscious process, especially for those who find themselves extremely well-represented in popular culture (straight white males). But others look explicitly to characters on screen for ideas of who and how to be. Think of the Rookie Mag generation of teenage girls who emulate the women of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or My So-Called Life to articulate themselves as female and as feminists. Or consider the questioning young queer women who binge-watch The L Word on Netflix as they struggle to define their own sexuality.
While I doubt Kechiche actively considered the effect his directorial choices might have on teenage (or college age) women, I think his film could be an important one for young women searching for models of who and how to be. And I’m not alone. The IFC Center, a cinema in New York’s Greenwich Village, recently announced that it would ignore the film’s NC-17 rating and admit “high school aged patrons.” The theater’s senior vice president wrote in a statement, “This is not a movie for young children, but it is our judgment that it is not inappropriate for mature, inquiring teenagers who are looking ahead to the emotional challenges and opportunities that adulthood holds.” In a blog post for The New York Times senior film critic A. O. Scott heartily agreed, noting that his own mature and inquiring 14-year-old daughter had already seen the film twice.
Amidst the controversy surrounding Blue is the Warmest Color, it is easy to forget that its sex scenes comprise only fifteen minutes of a three-hour film. The sex makes up one aspect of a nuanced filmic study of a young woman’s being and becoming. The film follows its protagonist Adele as she progresses from high school to the professional world. It is strikingly realist, especially compared to portrayals of teenagers in American film.
The first half of the film focuses especially on the unruliness of Adele’s teenage body. Her hair is always ratty and falling in her face. She pauses mid-walk to hike up her just too-tight jeans. In recurring close-ups we see that Adele’s face is completely free of make-up, sometimes pimply, and regularly sporting an oily sheen or perhaps a bit of pasta sauce around the edges of her lips. These visual details alone make Adele feel hyper-realistic.
The sex she has early in the movie with a boy named Thomas is equally realist. He is a senior in high school with an underdeveloped moustache and Adele is only dating him because she thinks she is supposed to. Their sex scene is intimate and dim and just a little awkward. The camera rarely leaves Adele’s face, and we see that she is panting but definitely uninspired. Afterward, Thomas asks if the sex was bad. She responds, “C’etait trop bien” but it is clear that she doesn’t mean it. It is a poignant and recognizable moment for anyone who has found themselves in sexual situations they’re not sure they want, regardless of orientation.
Unfortunately the second sex scene, which inspired the film’s controversy, doesn’t have anywhere near that level of realism and relatability. Instead, in his eagerness to portray the intensity of the two women’s attraction, Kechiche has created a scene that is absurd in its exceptionality.
Though many of the film’s commenters have tried, no one can speak for all lesbians and declare that the scene is or is not true to lesbian sex. But the scene does not ring true to sex in general. Occurring at roughly the film’s midpoint this marathon sex-scene is meant to depict the first sexual encounter between Adele and Emma, the blue-haired artist. But there is nothing inexperienced or believably teenaged about Adele’s body as she and Emma move through a dizzying number of sexual positions.
Kechiche could easily have captured the women’s remarkable passion in a scene that was also a little messy. Hands could fumble. Knees might knock. Adele’s hair—formerly so unruly—could prove an endearing obstruction. At least one of the two women might conceivably have pubic hair. Instead, Kechiche has transformed his characters into sexual Olympians—their bodies are perfectly hairless and perfectly coordinated, marked by breathtaking endurance, and a contortionist’s ability to twist into any possible position in the name of pleasure. What makes the scene feel pornographic then, is not so much the implied presence of a male gaze, but rather the near professionalism of the sex these two women perform.
Clearly Kechiche’s treatment of sex on screen is far from revolutionary. Even where Blue is the Warmest Color rings true, it is only narrowly representative, depicting the lives and sexual experiences of two conventionally beautiful white women. Still, I think the film—and the discourse it has inspired—represents a small step forward in terms of media representations of sex and sexuality. With this film comes the suggestion, by members of the film world elite, that perhaps young women can and should be viewing explicit images of lesbian sex, female sexuality, and female pleasure.
It is by now a media trope that pornography is a danger to American youth, warping their understanding of sex with unrealistic images. But people rarely discuss the possibility that watching accurate and thoughtful portrayals of sex could have a positive and empowering effect on young viewers as they work to define who and how they are.
Watching sex on screen continues to carry significant stigma in the United States as we make sense of the troubled relationship between cinema and blue cinema, art and pornography. Given that sex is an inherent part of being and becoming, this troubled binary does young viewers a disservice. At the very least, Blue Is The Warmest Color suggests a move towards a frank sexual realism, that should become paradigmatic as cinema continues to tell and re-tell the coming-of-age story.