Céline Sciamma and Abdellatif Kechiche both arrived at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival with new films, but the reception to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo” could not have been more different. While Sciamma’s “Portrait” was hailed as a masterpiece and one of the festival’s best achievements, Kechiche’s “Mektoub” was derided as a new rock bottom for the Palme d’Or winner behind “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Both films became calling cards for the highs and lows of a filmmaker’s gaze. Critics championed the female gaze of “Portrait,” while Kechiche’s male gaze became a point of controversy just as it did before on the first “Mektoub” film and “Blue.”
In a new interview with France’s So Film magazine, Sciamma defends Kechiche’s male gaze and calls out both film critics and moviegoers for creating a cinema in which the female gaze and the male gaze are put in direct competition against one another. Sciamma argues there is value in both gazes if the viewer is willing to put in the time to deconstruct them.
“It was extremely interesting to have both our films in competition,” Sciamma told the magazine. “Thanks to Kechiche’s film, and to ‘Portrait,’ the French critics were faced with questions of the male and female gaze, and the issues that stem from the act of looking. Kechiche and I make films that act as manifestos about such questions. It is completely stupid to think you can only love one at the expense of the other. To the contrary!”
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Sciamma continues, “Here’s where certain French critics and viewers are not doing enough deconstructive work. We can absolutely love both films. We do not live up to the exciting nature of this moment if we start reducing everything to questions of ‘good or not good; moral or immoral; voyeur or not voyeur,’ that’s not the point. The key is to understand what animates such images, and what they seek to impart.”
The “Portrait” and “Tomboy” director went on to champion Kechiche’s sex scenes in “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” The extended scenes are graphic in nature and have long been at the center of debates over whether Kechiche’s male gaze goes too far in exploiting his actresses Lea Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos (both women also were outspoken about how arduous it was to film these scenes). Some have wondered how the “Blue” sex scenes would change if shot with a female gaze, but for Sciamma that’s missing the point of what Kechiche is trying to do.
“I like ‘Blue is the Warmest Color,’ for example, and I thought the sex scenes fit perfectly with Kechiche’s larger project: to depict his relationship with his actresses, and their relationship with one another,” Sciamma said. “That’s fascinating, so long as you remain active, which is essential when watching Kechiche’s films. [We should] avoid base judgments and have the courage to question the gaze — our own, and that of the director. But that requires some effort from the spectator.”
Sciamma’s “Portrait” was picked up by Neon out of the Cannes Film Festival and will be released in U.S. theaters December 6. Kechiche’s “Mektoub” has not received U.S. distribution.