Monday, September 30, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color Through the eyes of a homosexual female director, by Molly Oconnor

Note from the blogger: Molly Oconnor is a LA based filmmaker who is currently working on various projects. She produced and directed the short film Violeta, with Edy Ganem. You can see her work here. This essay you'll read I believe is a well structured and poignant take on the very talked about film Blue is the Warmest Color and I strongly encourage everyone to read it.

September 7th, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color
Through the eyes of a homosexual female director
Molly O’Connor
I have lost the last 4 days of my life, trapped in emotional upheaval from seeing the film Blue is the Warmest Color.  Since I was a child I knew I wanted to make movies because film, as a medium, has an immense power. One of which I have recently been subject to experience, to the greatest extent I ever have. 
Blue is the Warmest Color had been on my radar since I saw Lea Seydoux in Farewell My Queen. As a director and consumer of cinema in general, I see the need for good queer cinema, lesbian cinema especially.  So I was excited to see this film.  I didn’t know much about it. I have not read the graphic novel. I don’t usually pay attention to media reviews, trailers, and such.  I saw that Blue won the Palme D’Or at Cannes and figured okay I am in for a treat.  It just so happened that I was going to see an advanced screening of the film in Los Angeles.  I watched the trailer a few days prior, but didn’t quite feel I had a grasp on the film.
My friend Joe and I wait in line then finally get in and find our seats. The movie is 3 hours long so the theater encourages people to go get food.  Especially since the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, is stuck in traffic and will be late.  They are holding the film so that he can introduce it.  After about a half hour he comes in, he tells us a little about the film, and they get things going.  They also warn us that the film has no credits because they were not yet finished. 
So the film just starts.  I am happy.  I love French cinema and the general verite aspect of it.  I like the look the film, the natural light, the style.  I like that we are introduced to a character just as she is.  No make up, slightly unkempt, a teenage girl who is not concerned of fitting into any type of Hollywood norm.  I like this a lot.
Within a matter of minutes through the tight framing of Adele’s face, I start to feel disoriented and claustrophobic.  I want the frame to loosen up just a little.  Then I start to get really uncomfortable because I feel that I am witnessing things I should not be seeing.  I am forced to watch this girl sleep as the camera just sits on her, drinking her in at her most vulnerable.  It starts to click that I am being subject to see this girl through the eyes of a director who seems to be in love with his actress.  I feel weird and creeped out by frame after frame of her sleeping, eating, masturbating, crying.  It’s unnerving, but I try to block that from my mind and get back to the film.
Adele Exarchopoulos is captivating.  Her emotions are so raw that instantly I am feeling with her.  Feeling what it felt like to know something is different when you are not feeling what you are “supposed to” with a boy.  That moment of love at first sight, when love just bowls you over.  I am feeling that sense of torture and longing that goes with being in love.  That feeling that consumes you, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can only think of that person.  I am feeling the anguish and pain that Adele (also the characters name which blurs the line between character and actor) is feeling.  I have never been so moved by a performance in this way.  I have never been able to identify so closely with a character like I am with her.  And you cannot escape the feelings.  The camera is in her face constantly capturing all of this in some unspoken glory. 
I feel that moment of relief and rapture and ecstasy and total fear when Adele finally meets and talks to Emma, her love at first sight.  I am right there with them.  Lea Seydoux is a powerhouse, an amazing force on screen.  The two of them together have a chemistry that is so rare and so divine that I am taken in.  I cannot take my eyes off them.  I know exactly what they are feeling.  I have been in both of their positions at one point or another in my life.  I am feeling all my past relationships in my body while experiencing this film.  It is amazing and scary and brilliant.  I am watching this story unfold and it has me hook, line, and sinker.
And then… The film goes from this moment of truth and honesty to porn.  I am now subject to porn.  In general I am indifferent to lesbian porn.  But I have a serious problem of the depiction of lesbian sex in this film.  Lesbian sex is not porn.  I am now clearly, without any doubt, being subject to Kechiche’s male gaze, his highly distorted fantasy of what lesbian sex is.  There is no pleasure, passion, sensuality, emotion, love, or anything to me that honestly sums up lesbian sex in this scene.  Instead for 10 minutes I am subject to two actresses who look uncomfortable, unsure, and exploited.  They do not look like they are having fun or enjoying themselves. 
The film has just taken this amazing portrayal of a relationship, a certain truth, and turns their love into a big lie.  A lie that he is trying to pass off as something it is not.  He speaks about the scene as having passion, emotion, and sensuality. The scene is garish, unsexy, laughable, and just plain absurd.  To the point where people are laughing in the audience in part for being uncomfortable and in part because the scene is so ridiculous.
Once again I am brought back into their relationship.  Before I get to see any of the good aspects of their love story, the happiness, the tenderness, the joy, etc we are already in their decline. They have settled into their roles.  They don’t quite fit.  Things have cooled.  Then they dissolve and break up in a scene that once again is so real and painful and something I could identify with.  There is a certain damaging power that women possess and it is all on display in the scene.  Emma slaps Adele in the face and I feel it.  It’s shocking. It hurts.  Adele is once again so lost and heartbroken. I am heartbroken with her. I can taste the salt of her tears in the memory of my own. 
They meet some time after they break up.  I feel that moment, that excitement, that crushing desire for the familiar, that hollow distorted ache.  And once again the scene quickly turns into a mockery.  A gross display of untruth, of grabbing and kissing and snot and absurdity.  Not long after this scene, the film ends.  3 hours and my first thought is I don’t need to be in a relationship any time soon.  This film was enough to remind me what that is like. 
After the film there is a Q & A with the director, Adele, Lea, and Jeremie Leheurte.  Lea is holding Adele’s hand cowering behind her as they walk to the stage area. There is a translator, which makes the Q & A difficult.  A 3-part question is asked and answered.  Then my friend calls Kechiche out, on a quote in the film, about female pleasure and how men in art are trying to decode that mystery.  My friend asks him if he feels he has done that with his film.  Kechiche gives a bullshit answer that skirts around the question, but proceeds to tell us how his film is about passion, love, sensuality, female pleasure, etc.  I am trying to digest this the best I can, as the film I just watched did not display what the director is telling me that it is.
Then a woman in the crowd asks Kechiche what he thinks that Adele gained and lost in the making of this film.  He says ask her she’s right here.  The woman says no I am asking you.  I don’t at first understand this woman, as it seems strange she wouldn’t just ask the actress. The director defensively states right off “well she was 18”.  This sticks out to me.  Adele answers the question herself after Kechiche.  All questions the cast answers are very benign and feel almost like they are saying what they are supposed to. They keep repeating the same answers.  I chalk it up to they don’t speak English that well. 
They wrap up the Q & A and on our way out my friend and I talk to Lea.  He tells her that her performance was brave.  I want to talk to her seeing as I admire her work, but I can see behind her smile that she seems very uncomfortable and doesn’t really want to be there.  So I tell her she was brilliant and leave her be.  We walk over by Adele.  I notice Lea get into the suv they came in.  Again my friend talks to Adele for a moment.  I tell her she is amazing.  We walk away.
I am, by this point, just able to kind of grasp what I have just seen and experienced.  I am troubled.  I am seriously troubled.  We discuss the film and how sick it is that this is just another film hopelessly caught in the male gaze.  This is a film that just exploits its actresses having these sex scenes that are pure male fantasy.  I now get why the woman questioned the director in the Q&A.  She must have been feeling what we were feeling.
This film, like so many others, fetishizes this male idea of lesbian women.  It does so in a way that makes it seem real.  And yes certain aspects of the relationship depicted, read as a real story.  I could identify with the characters.  However, the lines of real and not real get seriously blurred in this film.  It is dangerous as it is passing off a serious lie as truth.  In some respects it is perpetuating false ideas about women and the love between them. My friend makes a comment about the girls, how they reminded him of children who have been abused the way they cling to each other.  This registers, but only in part.
The next day I wake up a mess, an emotional wreck. I am still feeling the film.  I am angry. I feel violated. I feel cheated and deceived.  I feel dirty.  I feel that there is something so off about the film and meeting the actresses and listening to the director speak. I have all these mixed emotions.  I look at photos online and I think it strange that it seems like the actresses are still caught in that relationship.  I send a facebook message to my friend about how weird this all feels and why am I feeling so strongly (I am not normally an emotional person). He messages back that he dreamed of the film.  He gives me a diplomatic answer about how problematic the film is.  It is all a jumble.  Then I listen to Lykke Li’s song, I Follow Rivers, which is used in the film. I’m right back in the moment with Adele dancing. I start crying.  I don’t cry normally, but here I am crying.  Why?
I start thinking about the performances and how amazing they are and how real they feel.  Adele Exarchopoulos should hands down win the Oscar. I think as a director myself, how did he get such real performances? 
Then I am furious with this director for having crossed the boundaries.  I am furious with this director for violating me by subjecting me to his fetish.  I am furious with this director for making something that feels so real, so moving, and then for shitting all over it at the same time with such lies and untruths in representing me, my life, my experiences on screen.  How dare he get into my emotions and then lie to my face in the Q&A.  I am angry and feeling sick because part of me wants to see the film again.  I want to see these amazing performances.  Yet I do not want to be subject to this man’s perversions.  I want for everyone to see this film because the actors are so wonderful and yet I don’t because I don’t want the audience to buy into the lie. I don’t want anyone to bear witness to what it took to get those performances.
I get a text from my friend later in the day. He is a wreck. In the evening, the report in The Daily Beast comes out from Telluride.  All that I am feeling is starting to make sense.  A director gets a performance so real by wearing down his actors.  By being manipulative and what I would say abusive.  “They look like children who have been abused the way they cling to each other because only they know what they have been through”.  I read Lea and Adele’s statements about their experience in making this film. In an eerie way my friend’s statement is almost their words verbatim. The piece’s of the puzzle come together.  All my feelings, my anger, are validated by their statements. This director went too far.
The next day Kechiche fires back at Lea.  She is crying during the press conference for The Los Angeles Times. She was crying in the press conference in Cannes. What is going on with this film? I realize I am reacting not only to what was happening on screen but also the implications the film has caused off screen. Kechiche states that Lea has no right to talk about suffering on set.  He basically calls her a media whore.  And worst of all he attacks her talent as an actress blaming her, not being able to get into character, as to why it took so long to shoot the film.  It’s a media frenzy in the highest of American fashion. 
After reading a few more articles I am even more furious.  How could this man as a director cross that sacred line of trust between director and actor?  I am disgusted in my gut feeling that these actresses must have overrode their own instincts and their own trust in themselves to please him.  As a director it makes me sick.  As a woman it makes me sick.  And yet here he is attacking one of his actresses???  Of course not the one that he is seemingly in love with in his filmmaking.  His words say so much about his character and it makes all my feelings of the days prior make complete sense.
Then I am overtaken by this sense of fear.  This sense that people are praising this film as being great when in truth it is not a great film.  It is a film that has two amazing powerhouse actresses who give brilliant performances.  This is also a film that is dangerous in the way it perpetuates false ideas of some lesbian mystique and sells that in some fashion as truth, when his film over all is not truth.
This man is dangerous because he seems blind to the film he made. I believe the aspects of the film that read as real come from the actresses and not the director. I believe it shows in the juxtaposition where the lines of  “truth” quickly turn into absurdity.  In the edit of the film he can’t seem to see what works and what doesn’t. This film doesn’t need to be 3 hour long. The fact that he holds you in a sex scene for 10 minutes feels like he wants to again subject you to his fantasy under some guise of what he thinks is beautiful.  It is not beautiful and it is not art.
This film is dangerous in the way the director’s male gaze is almost masturbatory in his fetish and how it sells the fantasy.  It is dangerous that men are praising this film.  As if they are so caught up in the fantasy they cannot see just how troubling this exploitation really is.  Yes this is something that happens in Hollywood all the time and we accept it.  The difference, in some way, is that Hollywood films don’t read as real.  You don’t experience a Hollywood film in the way you do Blue is the Warmest Color.  I am not saying this makes it okay the way female sexuality is depicted in Hollywood, but rather that people don’t buy it as truth.  In the end it is just a movie.  With Blue there is an element of truth in some of the performances that it doesn’t feel like just a movie.
I am left questioning myself as a director.  I am fully questioning female sexuality in film and the ways that I have been indoctrinated by film and the media to look at women the way a man would.  What does this mean for me in depicting female sexuality in the films I make?  How do I not perpetuate this very thing?  Would my take on female sexuality in film be different simply because I am a woman?  All these questions have really opened my eyes to the over all problems of sexualizing women in the way we do and selling that as pleasure.  It is not that I had never noticed, but that now I see it so differently. I don’t have an answer for any of these questions just yet.
It is day 4.  I wake up thinking okay this feeling is finally fading maybe I can get back to my life.  I have things I need to focus on that I have been too discombobulated to deal with.  Yet this film is still haunting me.  The song is still in my head on repeat.  The feelings come in waves.  I am finally better able to articulate my thoughts and feelings about this experience.  I get angry again that the film itself is not even worth warranting my time, emotions, and energy for 4 days.  I question this reaction, stepping outside of it and realizing how crazy it is that a film has affected me this much. I hate the director for affecting me this way with something so amazing and yet completely horrific at the same time. Then I marvel in the very power that film has.  One day I hope that I make films that have this strong of an affect on people but in positive ways instead of negative.
I think that I am lucky to have seen the film before the media blow up.  I am lucky to have had the experience of the Q & A.  I am lucky to be this moved.  I also know that people who are privy to the film and all the media about it will most likely not have the experience I did.  In some sick way I have to give Kechiche my kudos for making a film that has moved me so much. But I hate him for violating me with his sadistic perversions.
I am also glad the actresses spoke out about what it was like to work with him, the grueling conditions and the lack of care for their well-being. I do not see them as victims, but it is good that people understand the lengths he went to and what it took to get those performances. People should also be aware of what they are witnessing.  The performances seem so real because the actresses were really suffering. This film should not be praised as a great film or a great expose on a lesbian love story. The actresses should be praised for enduring the abuse they did and giving what they did to the film.  The rest of this film needs to be exposed as a fetishized male fantasy that is trying to pass itself off as truth. This is not sensuality, passion, female pleasure, lesbian mystique, or art. Perpetuating that lie is not okay and this film needs to be called out for that.


  1. I strongly suspect you are projecting your experience of lesbian sex onto their scenes in the film. I have not yet seen the film but I am reading everything I can find on it. As a lesbian myself who does watch lesbian porn where there is real connection and passion---and from my own experiences---there are ALL kinds of ways that women connect and have sex. This film's sex scenes seem to be acting like a Rorschach test---each reaction telling something about the viewer. Also, the focus on Adele's face and emotions would likely work to involve the viewer with her experience deeply, as opposed to you conjecture that it Must Be the director's fetish. Jeeeezzzz. Your review says so much more about you than the film.

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