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‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ Contains Graphic Lesbian Sex, But What’s It Really About? Director Abdellatif Kechiche Explains Himself

'Blue Is the Warmest Color' Contains Graphic Lesbian Sex, But What's It Really About? Director Abdellatif Kechiche Explains Himself

In May, Abdellatif Kechiche and the cast of “Blue is the Warmest Color” looked like they were on top of the world. The French director of the acclaimed dramas “Black Venus” and “The Secret of the Grain,” Kechiche had completed what was possibly his most ambitious work to date, a two-and-a-half hour coming-of-age drama about a pair of young female lovers (19-year-old newcomer Adele Exarchoupolos and rising star Lea Seydoux) who fall in and out of an intense romance as they grapple with big ideas. While the media focused on a graphic six-and-a-half minute sex scene between the women — at one point misreporting it at 20 minutes long — the high profile jury, headed by Steven Spielberg, saw a much bigger picture.

Not only did “Blue Is the Warmest Color” win the Palme d’Or, but the jury stipulated that the top prize belonged to both Kechiche and his two actresses as well. A widely circulated snapshot from the occasion captured the euphoria of the moment: Kechiche, his eyes closed and his face seemingly frozen in a Cheshire Cat grin, surrounded by his giddy stars as they planted smooches on either side of his face.

It was a nifty photo opportunity, but it would eventually provide ammunition for critics perturbed by the perceived masculine gaze in Kechiche’s depiction of sexuality. A few weeks after the festival, that perspective took on greater ramifications when 27-year-old Julie Maroh, whose graphic novel provided the basis for Kechiche’s story, posted a blog deriding the film’s “so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn.” She found the scenes laughably unrealistic. “This was what was missing on the set: lesbians,” she wrote in French after attending a screening. “The gay and queer people laughed because it’s not convincing, and find it ridiculous.”

The conversation surrounding the movie would grow even more heated when both actresses seemingly turned against the project, describing the shooting experience to interviewers as so degrading that they never wanted to work with Kechiche again. In a remark he would later recant and explain as an off-the-cuff expression of frustration, Kechiche told a French magazine that audience expectations ahead of the movie’s theatrical release led him to decide it shouldn’t be released at all.

READ MORE: Abdellatif Kechiche Corrects the Record On “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

Four and a half months after Cannes, Kechiche sat down for an interview in a downtown Manhattan hotel looking little like he had in that celebratory Cannes moment. He was dead serious, reserved and seemingly afraid to offer beyond a few words of insight about his movie at a time. More than anything else, Kechiche looked tired, and so did his translator.

Kechiche had faced controversy surrounding “Blue is the Warmest Color” in his country as well. “I didn’t think when were shooting this film that there was still such a taboo against homosexuality in France,” he said. “But of course there was this desire to talk about a community that’s not necessarily visible in cinema.” He said he resisted the temptation to politicize the drama. “The danger was to turn it into something that would be a militant or flag-waving kind of film,” he said. “I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to do it in a sort of frontal fashion.”

It was an odd choice of words given the topic. But despite the heft of the nude scenes in “Blue,” its prominence in complaints against the movie created the perception that the scenes dominated it. Instead, the protagonists spend much of the movie clothed and engrossed in dialogue. At its center, Adele drifts through her first high school romance before meeting and being entranced by the slightly older art student Emma (Seydoux), with whom she finds herself liberated by the prospects of talking philosophy and literature over wine.

Yes, together they attend a gay pride parade, but Adele consumes more screen time on her own: The French title of the movie is “The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 & 2,” and when the action shifts from its first part to its second, several years have passed. We witness Adele grow up, both physically and emotionally. Ultimately, Kechiche tells a story primarily focused on his titular heroine’s transition to young adulthood, along with the various fluctuating emotions she rides to get there.

“The challenge was to get past all of the discussion so that any audience member could really identify with the characters,” Kechiche said. It wasn’t entirely new terrain for the director: In 2010’s similarly lengthy “Black Venus,” Kechiche foregrounded the plight of Sarah Baartman, a 19th century woman exhibited in freak shows throughout Europe. The grotesque exhibitionist desires that Baartman faced make the role of lust in “Blue” look fairly coy.

“In ‘Black Venus,’ you have a woman subjected to the looks of others, who’s in a position of prostitution,” Kechiche said. “In this film, we’re really talking about pleasure and something that’s ignited by passion.” He refuses to discuss the choreography of the sex in “Blue” in terms of the conceptual implications that have been lobbied against it. “Unfortunately, I don’t ask myself these questions,” he sighed. “I broach the topic from an aesthetic point of view.”

For viewers like myself who saw and enjoyed “Blue” at Cannes, the sex mainly served to illustrate the bond between the two women so that their eventual relationship problems carried an element of intensity that viewers could understand in intimate detail. But it’s additionally a means of foregrounding the physical dimensions of new experiences for alienated youth, which is also familiar Kechiche turf: Kechiche’s 2003 debut “Games of Love and Chance” involved teen lovers engrossed in similar creative aspirations. For Kechiche, however, “Blue” contextualizes the coming-of-age routine as part of a larger process. “I mean, of course it’s a running theme for me,” he said. “But it’s an experience that we continue to go through. It’s alive in us.”

Despite the universality of its subject, however, “Blue” also very clearly exists in the present. “For a male filmmaker from an Arab background to make a film that contains numerous scenes of steamy and highly explicit lesbian sex is itself a political statement,” wrote Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir in May, going so far as to call it “the first great love story of the 21st century that feels completely of the moment.”

The movie encourages a progressive dialogue on sexual experience, but it’s simultaneously a clear-cut portrait of millennial frustrations — the tenuous blend of excitement and ambivalence that defines today’s youth. Kechiche, of course, resists any basic attempt to pigeonhole the movie as a statement. “On the one hand, yes, I think it does follow a line of social commentary,” he said. “I prefer to think that the story between the two characters sort of rises above that.”

Yet one can easily find the natural connection between the immigrant storyline of Kechiche’s “The Secret of the Grain” and “Blue,” where the middle class Adele transforms her pragmatic ambitions after encountering the intellectualism of Emma’s world. “The reality is that these are two different people from two different social milieus,” Kechiche explained. “That’s an important part of their relationship, so it inevitably does fall in line with social commentary by virtue of where the characters come from.”

With Adele at the center of the story, however, “Blue” is best seen not as a provocation so much as a bittersweet portrait of growing up, which has naturally invited comparisons to Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows.” Without the sex scenes, “Blue” might raise fewer eyebrows, but the central dynamic would remain intact. U.S. distributor IFC Films has implicitly addressed concerns surrounding the movie’s contents with its trailer, which contains quotes from both Spielberg and famed New Queer Cinema critic B. Ruby Rich.

The implication is clear: “Blue” might push certain boundaries in terms of the images it puts onscreen, but the fundamentals of its plot are traditionally heartwarming. Kechiche knows it’s not the easiest combo. “When one makes a movie, one always aspires to have it seen by as many people as possible,” he said. “At the same time, with this type of movies, it’s not necessarily going to be a blockbuster.”

But even if the fallout of “Blue” has exhausted the filmmaker, he hasn’t lost his drive. “There are so many stories I’d like to tell,” he said, visibly energized for the first time in a half hour conversation. “There are so many subjects I’d like to explore. I could do a science fiction film, or a western, or a police story.” Told he should consider doing all of them, the wide smile from his famed Cannes photo finally returned. “I’m going to try,” he said, “if life gives me the opportunity and time.”

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