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by Matthew Hammett Knott
October 17, 2013 12:12 PM
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Heroines of Cinema: 'Blue is the Warmest Color' and the Real Problem With Male Filmmakers and Female Sexuality

Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in 'Blue is the Warmest Color'

I am a man, and this is an article concerning female sexuality, at least in part. I feel that should be noted immediately, lest anyone take it as an unnoticed irony rather than a relevant starting point. While I don’t see my gender as fatally problematic either to the authorship of this article or this column in general, it is far from irrelevant.

Nonetheless, it was with relief that I read Judith Dry’s article on the sex scenes in “Blue is the Warmest Color”. A revival of the gleeful fuss - more popularly described as ‘controversy’ - surrounding the film’s scenes of a sexual nature was inevitable, with the Palme d’or winner set for US release next week. Given this, it was edifying that the first fresh take on the matter was an avowedly lesbian analysis.

Dry’s article chronicles the varying responses of critics Manohla Dargis (broadly negative) and B. Ruby Rich (positive), while avoiding repetition of the much-misrepresented opinions of Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel that serves as the film’s source material. Maroh created a media field day with her specific criticism of the sex scenes, despite her overall evaluation of the film as ‘coherent, justified and fluid’.

READ MORE: Que(e)ries: What Do We Expect from Lesbian Films?

The debate has concerned Kechiche's status as a straight male director telling a lesbian narrative, and a depressingly inevitable strain of misogyny is evident in the reaction to the opinions of Dargis, Maroh, Rich and Dry in various comment threads and response pieces. (By contrast, when the critic Mark Cousins told his 15,000 Twitter followers that “what made me angry were the panning shots up Adele’s body - the grammar of exploitative cinema”, not a single person engaged him in dissent). Nonetheless, what matters is not who is right or wrong - Dargis, who cannot forgive that the director “registers as oblivious to real women”, or Dry, who seems willing to accept that his is a male vision. The most troubling fact remains that, among the crossfire of conflicting opinions, the only voice that rises as definitive, for better or worse, is Kechiche’s.

Abdellatif Kechiche, Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos win the Palme d'Or for "Blue is the Warmest Color."

Nor is this an isolated phenomenon. Another Cannes premiere, Francois Ozon’s “Jeune et Jolie”, told the story of Isabelle, a privileged seventeen year old girl who dabbles in prostitution with men of all ages. Even in a generous review, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw correctly identified the film as a “very male fantasy”. Other reviewers referenced the director’s homosexuality in excusing him from any dirty old man accusations. However, Ozon’s real crime is not perversion but a blatant lack of respect for the female perspective.

In a revealing conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, the director pointedly ignores the opinions of his interviewer Rhonda Richford. Claiming to her that ‘it is a fantasy of many women to do prostitution’, Richford asks ‘Why do you believe that is a desire? I really don’t think that’s the case’. Ozon insists that ‘there is kind of a passivity that women are looking for’. When asked to elaborate by a clearly skeptical Richford, he insists he has spoken to women about it, but given the short shrift he affords his interviewer’s opposing opinion, one wonders how well he was really listening.

Either way, the evidence is in the film. My problem is not with the very idea of male directors dissecting the female sexual experience on camera - if it was, I would have to revise my DVD library pretty rapidly. It is the fact that, without female voices in the picture, the discussion is left incomplete.

It is even a concern with films that do not strike me as problematic. Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria” seemed to me an extremely honest portrait of middle aged sexuality. Nobody has accused Lelio of glamourizing the female experience - his star Paulina Garcia told Indiewire that ‘what Sebastian does is show nakedness in a way that is both beautiful and ugly. There's attraction and repulsion at the same time. It's a very interesting way of framing it’. This is certainly refreshing when lined up against Kechiche’s evaluation that ‘what I was trying to do when we were shooting [the sex scenes] was to film what I found beautiful. So we shot them like paintings, like sculptures’. But it is important to recognize Lelio’s limits too. Ultimately, who am I, or he, to say that his portrayal of middle aged female sexuality is authentic. And even if it is - and I do hope and suspect that it is! - it surely ought not to the be the last word on the matter.

Not that the solution is simply to turn to the nearest female director and expect her to have the answers. Stacie Passon is a lesbian filmmaker whose film “Concussion” explores themes which relate to both “Gloria” and “Jeune et Jolie” in a way that I found as false in some respects as Ozon’s offering. No female director wants to be favored or privileged purely on the basis of her gender. But in such a male-dominated field, when people such as Cannes director Thierry Fremault insist that quality is their sole selection criteria, we end up with an all-male playing field (i.e. the Cannes 2012 competition line-up) and women are once again excluded from the conversation.

Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

If there is any consolation, it is that when a compelling narrative from a female director does emerge, it is all the more essential. I have the unhealthy habit of ranking my favorite films of the year, and so far, the one film female-directed film on my Top 10 of 2013 is Haifa Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda”. According to the criteria of certain critics, the film is impressive but not superlative, certainly with regard to its filmmaking craft. To me, the sheer vitality of the narrative, in every sense, make the film ten times as potent as any number of more technically meticulous films.

It all comes back to Robert Bresson’s inspiring maxim - “make visible that which, without you, might never be seen”. In this respect, Manohla Dargis’s criticism that Kechiche “seems so unaware or maybe just uninterested in the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades” seems less pertinent to “Blue is the Warmest Color” than with regard to the wider picture. All perspectives are limited, including Dargis’, including Kechiche’s, including mine. It doesn’t mean we have to reject any in particular. That is our prerogative. What is essential is to recognize the limitations of each, and most importantly, recognize those that are missing entirely from our cultural landscape, and seek them out.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer. Follow him on Twitter.


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27 Comments

  • ballooney | October 20, 2013 2:21 PMReply

    Hmm, I guess there's a reason the sex scenes are said to be so "hot". The problem in this era of ultra-sophistication, is that the exploitation shines right through.

  • ... | October 18, 2013 5:18 PMReply

    What is never mentioned, is that the exploitation is also in the eyes of the viewer. There's as many readings into the sexuality in film, as there are viewers. Some consume it as porn, and for some it is that intrinsic part of live; In a sense, I find the reactions always to be very guilt-driven. And guilt has many symptoms, whether one tries to deny it, or to embrace it. Guilt can produce the greatest feelings of uncomfortableness, or the greatest sexual fantasy, or just about anything else, and those feelings we then see erupting in the discussions afterwards.

    Additionally, I personally think it is a oversimplification to say, that a woman (or a gay filmmaker) can create nudity on the screen, in a form, that it would not be partly a male fantasy. Being a woman does not ensure a complete out-of-the-womb innocence in our present world, does it? On SOME levels it may get closer to truth at the moment of its making, but as the film is out, lives its own life outside of the control of the individuals involved, it becomes something else. There we enter the game, and discuss it on these forums. ;)

    And this discussion will never die, and that makes it so interesting.

    One thing that often annoys me, is that tendency on putting one's own experience of a film over the others by saying: "I am a lesbian." or "I have lived similar situations.", or "I understand this better as a woman", or "... as a man."

    Can one really ever say your personal experience is somehow more worthy than other people? Again, how could one say that the terrible emptiness, longing, desire and the nostalgia I felt, would be anyhow less worthy? I picked up certain details, that the other person might not have. Everything is a reflection of my own worldview and past experience. When it comes to art that is close to what it is to be a human, this should be expected, and accepted. In front of the cinema screen, we are equally worthy.

  • faquue | October 18, 2013 2:40 PMReply

    I think that woman view sexuality through rose colored glasses they will never understand it in its real form only the fantasy.

  • fuck this author | October 18, 2013 12:12 PMReply

    How would it be more authentic of a female director made this film?

  • genderless | October 20, 2013 2:17 PM

    uh...maybe her interest wouldn't have been primarily sexual?

  • Niño tocapelotas | October 18, 2013 9:06 AMReply

    Narration is one half of the film. How you represent then narration through the use of the camera and other technical and artistic resources is the other half. Basing a critic only on the narrative aspects of the movie is not getting the point what cinema is about.

    If what you want is just to critic narration, then critic books.

  • jele | October 18, 2013 5:06 PM

    Limiting narration to books like you did, just shows you didn't understand what he is saying.

  • G.R. | October 18, 2013 12:28 AMReply

    The thing is, I get the criticism, but it still misses the point and degrades the artwork. Gender is in the mind and sexuality runs across an ever-sliding scale.

    This film is about that first time you love someone so much you loose yourself. To me, it's looking past gender and into the heart, into our deepest passions; our ability to lust for one another not because of our sex, but because of that ineffable pull we'll never understand. So of course it's going to be sexual and Abdel was right to not shy away from that just because he is a male filmmaker.

    Mark Cousins needs to get over himself. Who made him the film pope?? News flash: he was self-elected! Why couldn't Abdel show a panning shot of her body? He's depicting sex and passion - to see what she desires; the sensuous discovery!!
    I think the people who are uncomfortable with this are uncomfortable because of what society has told them to be uncomfortable with. It's not exploitative, Abdel has a point of view.

    I, for one, stand by him, the actresses, and this masterful piece of art. I'm glad he's shattering the windows around female characters, and I can't wait till 10 years from now when this film is regarded as one of the most honest and passionate films about young love ever made.

  • Nnvee | October 17, 2013 9:25 PMReply

    I think what everyone is missing is that sure it's fine for men to make films about women and female sexuality; should they be the ones to do it 99% of the time, HELL NO!!!

    The problem is men get to make all the men films and they get to make all the women films, that is woefully clear and complete nonsense.

  • TB | October 17, 2013 3:32 PMReply

    Ugh these articles are such clickbait but I fall for it every time.......

    I hate all the gender essentialism that happens in articles like this. As if men were incapable of making great films about women and as if women are automatically better just because they are the same gender. It's annoying. And I have to say as a queer woman, Judith Dry doesn't represent me or my experience. To say that her voice or Julie Maroh's voice or B. Ruby Rich's voice is somehow the authentic lesbian voice speaking for all women who love women is ridiculous. You would never say the same thing if it were a gay director making a film about straight characters.

  • James | October 18, 2013 8:10 AM

    MHK, a major flaw in your reporting is your assumption that your readers know anything about the film and it various supporters and critics. I was half way through and still frustrated that you hadn't said anything discernible except to those actually fighting over the reviews of the film. If you don't know or care about these people, your article, as regards the film itself and its social or artistic significance is a meaningless waste of time. I suggest you get out of gossip writing and try to involve yourself in journalism next time.

  • MHK | October 17, 2013 7:42 PM

    I'm not sure what you're accusing me of is what I'm actually arguing. I don't make any actual criticisms of either "Blue is the Warmest Color" or "Gloria" - both of which I consider among the best films of the year. Nor do I particularly endorse the opinions of Dry, Maroh or Rich, let alone call them the authentic lesbian voice. I'm just noting how most of the high-profile films about female sexuality on this year's festival circuit are made by men, and advocating for more female voices to balance the picture. I don't think that's particularly hate-worthy, gender-essentialist or ridiculous.

  • Leticia | October 17, 2013 4:26 PM

    Perfect.

  • James Earl Jones | October 17, 2013 3:20 PMReply

    Did any of these trolls commenting even READ the article? Half of them are bitching about issues that don't even exist in the piece (which is great, by the by).

  • Clitoreyes | October 18, 2013 8:04 AM

    Yes! This is what I was thinking! Like, is being queer and being able to read suddenly a unique trait? I should go update my okCupid.

  • Greg | October 17, 2013 2:26 PMReply

    I don't disagree that we need more gay and female and gay/lesbian filmmakers, because we do, but I also don't think this film is sexist or a male fantasy. I think the limits of a straight man making this film help it feel universal, almost ubiquitous. I think it depicts lesbians falling in and out of love, but it's "about" people falling in and out of love, and the fleeting nature of love. I was profoundly moved by the movie, so I'm just gonna paste a section from a piece I wrote on the film, because it summarizes my feelings on the sex in the film as depicted by a straight man:

    "Kechiche's direction is stunningly simple, almost banal, comprised mostly of close-ups shot with a wide-angle lens; instead of creating emotions, the camera captures them, lets them unfurl naturally. He puts a tremendous amount of importance on his actresses' faces, allowing his camera to hover over them as they kiss, as they eat, as they stare off, lost in their own cranial catacombs. Innocence and secrecy converge on Adèle face, her lips always slightly parted as if an overflow of secrets are threatening to spill out, her eyes glazed with tears, glistening in a brilliant splendor, throbbing with pain. Her confusion and sadness are daubed in quietude. Once we get past a certain point in the film--the last time we see her genuinely happy—her lips seem to curl down deeper and deeper, like a wilting flower. "

  • ginger liu | October 17, 2013 1:14 PMReply

    I dont think a straight man has any right to tell me, a gay woman, that this film doesnt represent my life. I don't get why he wrote this. He says he's male so how can he know what lesbian sex is and why, oh why, oh why, do US press insist on talking about ten minutes of an amazing three hour film. The actresses were fed up with all US reporters going on about it. Enough already. And, I'm gay, and I think the film really nailed my feelings and my lifestyle and my first love, and the pretend sex was fine in the film. This film is about love, not porn. It's an amazing film about love and being gay and growing up. I recognized my younger self so many times. And well done for a straight male director for getting it right. Bravo to him. And shut up all you straight writers who have no qualification on gay life.

  • aofnaovij | October 17, 2013 1:38 PM

    Well this is a contradictory statement given the gender and supposed sexual preference of the director. Also, we all owe all of this hubub bullshit to Manhola Dargis, the largest negative force working in film criticism today!

  • MHK | October 17, 2013 1:22 PM

    1. I'm gay - why do you assume I'm straight?
    2. I didn't criticise or even analyse the film, let alone claim it doesn't represent your life
    3. I deliberately didn't comment on or describe the sex scenes, and only mentioned them in passing

  • Rita | October 17, 2013 1:12 PMReply

    Gag... I am a woman and you don't speak for me!

  • X | October 18, 2013 8:08 AM

    this was meant for the comment above. but actually, pah, to this insufferable comment too.

  • X | October 18, 2013 8:07 AM

    'He says he's male so how can he know what lesbian sex is '. As a gay girl who knows the writer personally, let me assure you that he has heard more than Diva's agony aunt about the particularities of lesbian sex.

  • MHK | October 17, 2013 1:25 PM

    That's my point! But if you don't think men can speak up even to advocate for more female voices then OK.

  • Ty Stone | October 17, 2013 12:55 PMReply

    You talk as if this doesn't happen all the time. What about White writting a story about how black are, or a white man or woman cast in a movie that was clearly for an asian? It's not a woman/white/black...it's Hollywood it's also a movie!

  • vauknvaown | October 17, 2013 12:29 PMReply

    It's all very common that those who've decreed this film in any negative light due to the director being male have not seen enough films or they've forgotten what's already happened in the history of film. Catherine Breillat and Chantal Ackerman. There you go. I just gave you two distinct female voices in french cinema regarding women's sexuality. I think Kechiche is smarter than pretty much anyone who looks at this film and jumps on the bandwagon du exploitation. Being a college grad does not give you authority over an artists work. As someone in 2009 said to that very outspoken british film critic while at the Antichrist press conference, "he is the artist and you are not!"

  • gordonlevitt | October 17, 2013 1:07 PM

    I don't know who you're addressing

  • Sasha Grey | October 17, 2013 12:37 PM

    Here here!