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Blue is the Hottest Controversy

Julien K. here, your special correspondent in Paris, reporting on the recent controversy surrounding the latest Palme d’or winner, Blue is the Warmest Color

As those of you who are familiar with the French film industry may know, director Abdellatif Kechiche’s work has been consistently lavished with praise for the last decade. In 2005, his sophomore effort L’esquive –a raw, direct exploration of teenage sexual politics in the banlieues (the French suburban hoods) by way of eighteenth century playwright Marivaux- unexpectedly trumped critical favorite Kings and Queen and populist heavyweights A Very Long Engagement and Oscar nominee The Chorus at the César Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. The same thing happened in 2008, when his powerful immigrant family drama The Secret of the Grain defeated a pack of prestige Oscar contenders (La Vie en Rose, Persepolis, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) in the same top categories. 

But now that he’s won the most prestigious award of them all, Kechiche is facing a harsh backlash. [moreIt’s been widely reported that the three-hour lesbian romance Blue is the Warmest Color is the first “queer” film to ever win the top award at the Cannes film festival (though one could make a case for Farewell My Concubine back in 1993). What you may not have heard is that Blue is the first Palme d’or ever to be based on a graphic novel. 

The eponymous source material, published in 2010, is the work of French comic artist Julie Maroh, who recently expressed her own feelings towards the film on her blog. And while she appreciated the film’s relative fidelity to her work and praised Kechiche’s masterful cinematic vision, she took umbrage at the much talked-about sex scenes. While NYT critic Manohla Dargis complained that “the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else”, Julie Maroh’s issues with these scenes were more gay-specific. As a lesbian, she found the sex unrealistic, and regretted that Kechiche (who is straight, as are two actresses) apparently did not consult any lesbians to stage them in a more convincing way:

Maybe there was someone there to awkwardly show them the possible positions with their hands, and/or to show them some so-called lesbian porn (unfortunately, it’s hardly ever actually for a lesbian audience). Because -except for a few scenes- this is all it brings to my mind: a brutal and surgical display, demonstrative and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and made me feel very ill at ease. 

Another blow was the revelation that Kechiche basically brushed her off after securing the movie rights. While insisting that she felt no bitterness, Maroh disclosed that Kechiche stopped answering her messages since 2011, did not keep her informed about the production, did not welcome her on set, did not invite her to join the film’s team on the red carpet, and failed to mention her in his acceptance speech. All she got was a handshake on the evening of the official screening and a brief “Thanks, you were the starting point”. 

Worse, Maroh’s account of Kechiche’s behavior came on the heels of widely publicized reports from the film’s crew that the six months long shoot and interminable editing process were a nightmare for all involved, effectively confirming suspicions that the much beloved director is in fact a tyrannical megalomaniac. For those of you who speak French, check out this hilariously nasty tumblr -created in all likelihood by a vengeful technician- which chronicles “The Real Life of Adele” (the film’s original title is “The Life of Adele”) by using famous movie gifs to illustrate the atmosphere on set.

Behold, what happens to a technician when he refuses to do Kechiche’s bidding:  


All that, plus the local right-wing nutjobs -incensed by the recent voting of the law approving same sex marriage - who instantly accused the all-powerful, all-evil gay lobby of influencing the jury (as if anything could influence Lynne f****** Ramsay). “Nowadays we can’t watch a film or a TV series without gay people expressing themselves. And now it’s the Palme d’or. We’re invaded, we can’t have a story without gays”, claimed former minister and notorious crackpot Christine Boutin. 

Too gay for some, not gay enough for others, Blue is the Warmest Color is already raising vital questions: can a man depict female sexuality frankly without being accused of sexism? Can a heterosexual filmmaker portray homosexuals without being called clueless or patronizing? What say you, readers? Speak up! 

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Reader Comments (15)

I loved Secret of the Grain so unexpectedly and so damn much that I retroactively forgave Kechiche for stealing Desplechin's due awards in 2004.

I wouldn't automatically villify him for not answering the original writer's messages and avoiding her: who knows whether she herself might not have been irritating and possessive of the story even after she had signed the rights away for another artist to use it to create something of his own? (Another scenario is that - yes, maybe he was just disrespectful. But it's hardly the likely scenario by default.)

And the shoot and edit process may well have been a nightmare because visionary artists often work in unconventional ways, and sometimes it's worth skipping protocol and letting them take things at their own pace. (Though maybe he should have warned people about his 'pace' in pre-production.)

But are you seriously telling me that neither he nor the two lead actresses intuited that maybe, just maybe, it might be useful to extensively consult an actual lesbian about the actual lesbian sex the entire story hinges on?


Are all these people actually morons and we just didn't realise it earlier?

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I would imagine that both actresses consulted lesbian friends, but to not have someone on set to offer advice during the shooting? It makes no sense. Would he make a medical drama without a Dr on set to consult?

I'm really looking forward to seeing this film regardless.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I loathe talking about and breaking down a movie before the larger public has seen it. You would think months after Zero Dark Thirty running into this at the center of awards season would have people tread lighter on doing so. Sasha Stone at Awards Daily is practically foaming at the mouth over this.

I think you steered clear of that, Nathaniel, and went into the behind the scenes stuff that actually can be talked about because there is something more substantive going on there versus what this critic or that critic saw or what a critic did not see but insists of blathering on anyway.

I thought the jury handled the movie as best as they could. They went into an unprecedented decision of awarding the actresses along with the director as a shared effort. You have to think that has something to do with the fact that they knew there was talk about how the direction came off in the most suggestive scenes in that movie. Plus, I really would think if Lynne Ramsay and Nicole Kidman would have rejected something that felt intrusive, over-indulgent, unrealistic, or pornographic in a sex scene it would not even come close to the Palme d'or. They probably would have just rewarded the actresses, cleaned their hands and just reward the more straight forward movies as Inside Llewyn Davis, The Past, or Like Father, Like Son.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Whoop! Sorry, I meant to Julien K.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Steven Spielberg's influence should not be discounted. Nicole is a red carpet gal but she is no diplomat.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMadonna

I believe the nasty things said about the director because those cliched statements are made about: the egomaniacs - the emotionally deficient - and the wannabes. Everyone who takes themselves seriously as a director gets these distorted ideas that being abusive and narcissistic will make them one of the masters. Bullshit.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Kind of tactless of the Maroh to make these comments now, right after the film has won the Palme, no? Her book is getting a huge bump from the film, it's going to be published in the US now, and she's decides this is the time to stir the pot with her feelings on the already controversial sex scenes? Shade, girl, shade.

As for what she said about the scenes themselves, eh we'll see. Just like any other kind of couple, there's no universal way that lesbians have sex. Other lesbians have weighed in on the film and loved it. I heard from one woman who said she cried because she had never seen desire like her own put up on screen before. Plus from what I gather, the scenes are simulated but unchoreographed. So the actresses are kind of doing what comes naturally, which is both out of Kechiche's hands and about as close to real non-pornographic sex as you can get. I trust the critics, I super trust that jury (is there anyone better to judge the artistic merit of explicit sex scenes than Ang Lee?) and I think Maroh might be a little close to the material to be the best judge of it.

I'm familiar with Kechiche's work before this film, and if his approach is like what it has been in the past, in Secrets Of The Grain or Black Venus, all of the rest of the scenes in the film will display the same level of intimacy. Man loves a good close up. He loves to observe textural details in everything, be it food, setting, or sex. It's his thing, and I don't think it's out of place with the material.

As for Kechiche's behavior towards the crew, that was no doubt a hellish set to work on. They deserve to complain, as do the actresses. But it's his process. Working in film isn't like working in an office. You're taking part in the creation of art. One could argue, and I'm pretty sure this must be Kechiche's mindset, that the paycheck is the insurance policy, and the finished art is the real payment.

If the finished film was crap because Kechiche didn't know what he was doing and was wasting everyone's time when he would go out for lunches during shooting or whatever, there's absolutely a complaint to be had. But since all of the grievances seem to be born from a genuine artistic intent that resulted in what has been deemed a masterpiece, it could be argued that their time was paid off. I don't think what he did was pleasant or nice, but I could see how it could be justified.

All that said: this is a film that I think it going to be killed by all of the talk before it opens. There will be a lot of people going into the theater knowing that they already hate it, kind of like Les Mis last year. And I think that's a real shame. It sounds wonderful to me. Probably my most anticipated of the year. Hope it gets a release soon, but knowing Sundance Selects it probably won't make it here until 2014.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Ugh, I hate myself for writing something that long.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

"Kind of tactless of the Maroh to make these comments now, right after the film has won the Palme, no?"

Maybe but it's semi-tactful that she didn't do it before the prizes were announced and potentially jeopardise the film's chances (though I doubt it would have with that kind of jury). Beyond that, is there really a good time for her to air these kinds of grievances?

I know that as a gay writer, if a straight person filmed my work (without consulting a gay person) and the gay love scenes came out looking inauthentic, I'd be busting to come right out and say it too.

"is there anyone better to judge the artistic merit of explicit sex scenes than Ang Lee?"

Huh? Maybe straight sex scenes. But much as I loved Brokeback (and I mean Loved!) - there was at least one key aspect about that sex scene that struck me as pretty damn inauthentic...

"As for Kechiche's behavior towards the crew, that was no doubt a hellish set to work on. They deserve to complain, as do the actresses"

Dear god - will someone just tell us already what happened?! What the hell did this man do to people?

All that said, I'm dying to see this film and I may very well love it despite the inauthentic sex (particularly since my idea of what authentic lesbian sex looks like is likely not much more evolved than Kechiche's).

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Okay clearly I should have googled 'kechiche crew complaints' before posting any comments. I take it back: this man is an unconscionable asshole. An inconveniently brilliant unconscionable asshole.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergoran

@goran: You're right, I absolutely meant straight sex with regards to Ang Lee. Brokeback has very few gay male sex scenes, and none of them are particularly explicit. It's one of the few complaints I have with the film, even though I think it was exactly what it needed to be for that specific moment in time. But Lust Caution is an entirely different ballpark, and I think one more relavent to this film, considering the presence of the female body.

But yeah, the set for the Kechiche seems like a nightmare. The crew complaints talk about how he pampered the actresses, but damn, it sounds like he'd have to with all they were going through. Shooting for 10 hours on a 10 second shot is one thing if you're a crew member, but I cannot imagine what it must have been like for the actresses to have to keep up that level of intensity through the full shoot, while knowing that at any time you weren't filming, your director could turn the camera to you and ask you to perform more. Or ten hours of endless eating. And then being gleefully told to throw up so you could do more. Eesh. I'd need a whole lot more than an oyster lunch to keep me on set for a five months of that.

But then I think...if it's great art, is it worth it?

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

@goran: We also don't actually know if he consulted anyone for the sex scenes. Maroh says he didn't ask her, but that's not to say he didn't ask anyone. Even if it was all Léa Seydoux and Adéle Exarcholopolous's doing, no lesbians involved, so long as they're not doing Showgirls moves I don't really think it's an issue. Sex is different for every couple. I don't really think there's a "right" set of moves or something. Lesbians aren't given a handbook for their first time in the sack. It's whatever happens and evolves with your partner, and considering the fact that the scenes were unchoreographed, I think that's probably what the film conveyed. Granted, it's a hell of a lot to ask of your actresses to "just go with it" for their sex scenes, but that's more of the hellish shoot point than one for inauthenticity.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Women-on-women sex (and I'm not saying "lesbian" sex, because that excludes bi women) is insanely misunderstood. NOBODY knows what we do. Straight men fantasize about it, but straight people and gay men are all absolutely baffled. I have an ex-boyfriend who always said he imagined we "float above the bed" (like Willow and Tara, I guess).

Given the enormous complexity around the perception of women's sexuality, on the way it is both stigmatized and pornified, objectified and vilified, I think it's super important to create a sense of authenticity for a movie that wishes to depict a true female same-sex romance, not just soft porn.

Obviously, I don't know if the sex in this movie creates a sense of authenticity or not, in the POV of a woman who has actually experienced same-sex romance, but I do want to call attention to the fact that it's important; that it's more than just any ol' authenticity of anything in a movie. It's more than authentic cooking or authentic city streets, it's the authenticity of something, the authenticity of which is really problematic in our culture.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

Deborah -- exactly... which is why i'm even more curious to see the movie. Obviously a lot of people were moved by it emotionally and that usually requires authenticity so I'm wondering why the sex scene in particular has come under fire unless its just because it's a sex scene and thus THE THING PEOPLE FOCUS ON.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commenternathanielr

@Deborah--Sorry if I was being exclusionary. I'm bi too and guuurl it is hard to know how to express these things. I usually go for queer but when you need something gendered....

I guess what I'm thinking about this though is that I don't know that there is an authentic way for women to have sex. There's no universal experience. If the actresses don't appear committed to each other and connected as partners, then it is absolutely inauthentic. And like, nails, or whatever. But I don't know if that's something that you really need a sex consultant to work out.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

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