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’.
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.
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.
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.