After seeing the misanthropic Austrian film “Paradise: Love” earlier this year, critic Farran Smith Nehme took to Twitter to lament the end of the era when European filmmakers were known for liking sex. French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color” brings it back. Already infamous for its 10-minute lesbian sex scene, it seems intended to turn the spectator on. The film has drawn fire from feminists, particularly New York Times critic Manohla Dargis and Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel on which it’s based, while winning the top prize at Cannes in May.
It opens in the US only five months later, but it’s already become an object of controversy on multiple fronts. Kechiche and his actors can no longer stand each other. Distributor Sundance Selects voluntarily submitted it to the MPAA ratings board and, to no one’s surprise, it received an NC-17 rating. Even if it were rated PG, the commercial potential of a three-hour subtitled film in the US is limited, although “Blue Is the Warmest Color” has a trailer featuring quotes from both Steven Spielberg, who headed the Cannes jury that awarded it, and venerable lesbian film critic B. Ruby Rich.
When “Blue Is the Warmest Color” begins, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is 15. She’s dating high school boys, but one night she goes to a gay men’s bar and then drops by a lesbian bar. After a brief sighting of a blue-haired woman in the street, she’s driven to fantasize about her; at the bar, she meets the woman, Emma (Léa Seydoux), and befriends her. She discovers that Emma is a painter. Adele is studying literature and plans to become a teacher. The two quickly bond and become lovers.
This year has seen several examples of male directors staging faux-lesbian fantasies — Brian De Palma’s admittedly entertaining “Passion” and Steven Soderbergh’s outright homophobic “Side Effects.” “Blue Is The Warmest Color” goes much further sexually than either film. Another difference is that Kechiche seems to want to cater to the desires of both lesbians and straight men. He takes breakups and family dinners as seriously as sex.
Nevertheless, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is deeply voyeuristic. Kechiche isn’t content to merely show Adele masturbating; he must dramatize her fantasy of sex with Emma. He somehow manages to shoot a heterosexual sex scene without showing the penis. The 10-minute lesbian sex scene plays like a stunt designed to get people talking about the film, especially since it’s rather clumsily directed and edited. But perhaps I would feel differently if I were turned on by it.
“Blue Is the Warmest Color” proceeds mostly as a series of extended conversations. The time frame is never exactly clear, but it seems to take Adele from her teens to her mid 20s. If Kechiche doesn’t have David Cronenberg or Catherine Breillat’s gift for using sex scenes to tell a story or establish character, he’s pretty good at talking about class in fairly subtle ways, such as contrasting the oyster dinner at Emma’s house with the humble pasta dishes seemingly served every day by Adele’s parents.
“Blue Is the Warmest Color” falls into a long tradition of French coming-of-age tales, whose high-water mark for films about teenage girls is probably Maurice Pialat’s “A Nos Amours.” Yet no one has blown up this kind of film to an epic scale before. To be honest, Kechiche’s style feels like a slightly watered-down version of French naturalism. All the same, he puts his own stamp on the genre by focusing it on a lesbian. André Téchiné’s “Wild Reeds” and Chantal Akerman’s “Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the Sixties in Brussels” are the only prominent French-language coming-of-age films to devote much time to queer characters, and both are far more modest works.
Kechiche may be playing out his fantasies about lesbians, using Maroh’s graphic novel as a springboard. However, 165 minutes or so of “Blue Is the Warmest Color” deals with matters other than sex. If the brigade of dirty old men in raincoats that haunted ‘70s porn theaters still exists, they’re likely to walk out around the halfway mark. I’m not inclined to dismiss Kechiche’s desire to speak to everyone or write it off as mere appropriation. Cultural segregation strikes me as worse, and I suspect he found parallels between Maroh’s experience as a lesbian and his own experience as an Arab in France. That said, we’ll really have achieved equality when a lesbian can make an equally explicit film about the love life of a heterosexual man and win prizes for it.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR | Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche | Sundance Selects | In French with English subtitles | Opens Oct. 25 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com