There’s a great moment in the post-punk band Gang of Four’s deconstruction of the love song ‘Love Like Anthrax’ where one of the voices asks ‘I don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love, we just don’t think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded with mystery.’ If this film didn’t already have two completely different titles, and if the quote wasn’t slightly too long for the average bus stop advert, this quote would be a perfect title for Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 Palme d’Or winner ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’. For the film is that rare thing; a truthful and relatively unclichéed look at teenage sexuality.
This seems particularly groundbreaking in a film focused on a female-female relationship, featuring at least one self-defined lesbian. Lesbians encounters have by and large been treated in film much in the same way as they have been treated in what we can euphemistically call ‘California’s other film industry’. As in porn, female-on-female sexual desire is filmed by and large for the purposes of men. Think the scene with the two girls kissing in ‘American Pie 2′ for the most lurid example, but it undercuts most lesbian depiction in cinema. Either that, or lesbianism is depicted as a phase or a journey rather than a sexuality, with Samantha Jones’ lesbian relationship in ‘Sex and the City’ perhaps the prime culprit. To continue the habit and quote from another post-punk song, ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ by and large (save for one huge element that I will come to later), rips it up and starts again.
In ‘Blue’, the high school drama ending with the getting together at a prom-inent event is refreshingly eschewed. Adèle’s school years provide us with a crucial beginning for context, but it is portrayed in a lifelike manner, as a hellhole where even a whisper of someone being different can lead to their friends and peers turning on them in an instant. The male-female courting that takes up the entirety of lesser films is dealt with in an awkward twenty minutes or so, with Adèle feeling an emptiness that feels like a sly dig at the emptiness of these films.
However, very few people I’ve spoken to were watching ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ for its playing with the tropes of teen drama. Many of my lesbian and straight male friends were there for one sex; lesbian sex, and lots of it. And this is why ‘Blue’ is so representative of its year of release, influenced as it is by pornography in featuring explicit and hardcore sex scenes for extended lengths of time.
Pornography has become an undeniable cultural force. In a world where a gay porn studio can offer Justin Bieber $2 million to film a gay sex scene, and where broadband speeds grow ever faster, it was only a matter of time before this began to be reflected in film. After all, it has been proven in countless experiments that pornography changes the way that we think about sex, and it eventually it had to change the way directors think about how to portray sex. ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ is the first of a trilogy of films depicting hardcore sex scenes along with ‘Stranger By the Lake’ and Lars Von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’, but we are discussing the former because the biggest criticisms levied at ‘Blue’ were actually because of how influenced it was by porn.
Although it aims to reflect it, sex in porn is very different from sex in real life. For example, I imagine most encounters with plumbers in real life tend to end in making strong cups of tea rather than hardcore shagging against the sink. However, porn creates an interesting phenomenon where things that are unrealistic in porn become realistic after people start doing them after seeing them in porn. This despite my hunch that there are many positions in porn only there because they film well, allowing everything to be on show to the camera, and do not offer any actual pleasure when participated in.
And this is the criticism those in the know laid on ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ the sex scenes were like lesbian porn, but the sort of lesbian porn made for straight men, without any real clue of the things lesbians actually enjoy during sex. I cannot emphasise enough how little of an expert I am on this, so I will let the author of the original graphic novel the film was based on describe the problems of the sex scenes:
“Maybe there was someone there to awkwardly imitate the possible positions with their hands, and/or to show them some porn of so-called ‘lesbians’ (unfortunately it’s hardly ever actually for a lesbian audience). Because — except for a few passages — this is all that it brings to my mind: a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and me feel very ill at ease. Especially when, in the middle of a movie theater, everyone was giggling.
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, and found it ridiculous. And among the only people we didn’t hear giggling were the potential guys too busy feasting their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on screen.”
(taken from this article)
To put it simply, the porn-influenced sex scenes made an very feminist subject take on a very misogynist feel as the sex scenes find themselves made for the straight male gaze. And this is why this film is so representative of its year. As porn studies becomes a legitimate field and a new wave of feminism orientates itself in a post-porn world, ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ is the film we desperately need held back by a present we desperately need to scrutinise, a film at once feminist and as anti-feminist as last week’s choice, ‘Gone Girl’.
Next post: as the 2015 Oscars move ever closer, we look at a couple of Oscar-baiting classics from the recent past, beginning with Daniel Day Lewis’ record-breaking turn in Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ Read it here >>