Being only a relatively casual consumer of foreign-language cinema, within which patronisingly broad umbrella I generally lean towards bizarre and/or macabre Asian thrillers, the first I heard about Blue is the Warmest Color was coverage of the post-production fallout between the film’s director Abdellatif Kechiche and, seemingly, everyone else involved. First and foremost, for reasons of voyeuristic “human interest” was the apparently torturous and deeply uncomfortable conditions created by the extended filming of the film’s extended and fairly-graphic sex scenes between Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux); scenes themselves criticised by Julie Maroh, the creator of the comic from which the film is adapted, and various LGBTQ commentators for their arch, unrealistic staging and the unmistakeably male gaze of the camera. What’s stranger is the apparent lack of self-awareness to the similarity of this deeply problematic direction to one of issues in the film; when Emma is attempting to interest an influential art dealer in her work she becomes frustrated with his insistence on framing her art within a narrative of her sexuality and, moreover, her sexual life.
The separation of artistic merit from problematic artist is a feat of deliberate cognitive dissonance that is, unfortunately, so familiar to a semi-engaged audience that it’s practically old-hat, a suspension of gnosis that sits too-comfortably alongside the perennial mental legwork of suspension of disbelief: it’s why we can enjoy a poem by T.S. Eliot without becoming complicit in his more hateful attitudes. Of course, such a distance is possible, in part, because his work doesn’t necessarily or overtly invite or offer a discourse on his anti-semitism whereas the reports of Kechiche’s disregard of his actors’ comfort and emotional well-being in service to a pornographically-influenced hetero-masculine dramatisation of sex between two women is apparent in every lingering shot and overlong take. It’s a frustrating problem for Blue is the Warmest Color because, although it won its leads and director the Palm d’Or at Cannes and the rest of the story, performances and even cinematography are engrossing and expert, there are hints of a less-limited version of the film throughout.
There are moments of less- or non-sexual nudity that work, artistically, where the unabashed across as comfortable intimacy between the two rather than performative displays for a presumptively titillated audience and both Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are excellent, exquisitely powerful and petty and loving and lonely by note-perfect turns, with the former’s literal transition from student to teacher and the accompanying sense of responsibility and assumed presence bridging the temporal jumps in the story that her obvious youth might otherwise belie. Nonetheless Blue is the Warmest Color is a film defined by its indulgences and its omissions: the sex scenes are absurd or uncomfortable and almost always far too long, but certain aspects of the personal and political from the original work, the relationship between Adèle and her parents and how that changes when they realise she’s in a relationship with another, older woman, are excised. Instead this otherwise excellent drama becomes an ostensibly apolitical story about love which has, inadvertently and extra-diegetically, become politicised by the sexual attitudes of its director.
Which is a shame, because otherwise I can’t recommend it strongly enough…