The Limits of Desire in Blue Is The Warmest Color: A Director’s Attempt to Represent Female Desire
by Niki Afsar
My initial reaction to Blue Is the Warmest Color was exhaustion. As the lights came up after a relentless 3 hours, I found myself at a loss for words. I had laughed, I had cried, I had sat paralyzed trying to react appropriately to the intense sex scenes. I wasn’t mentally prepared to take on the discussion immediately following the screening, part of this year’s Virginia Film Festival, about the various controversies surrounding the film, including the reaction in the U.S. to the graphic sex scenes, the reaction from the lesbian community, and the fall-out between director Abdellatif Kechiche and the film’s leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, after they had been jointly awarded the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, an award that usually just goes to the film’s director.
As I sat silently taking it all in, a delightfully eager gentleman from the back of the audience, clearly taken with the film, offered a litany of what he thought the film was about: “self-discovery, sexuality, relationships, coming of age, forgiveness, the desire for connections…” His expansive list certainly covered the general themes of the film, but he also hit upon one of the film’s most fascinating aspects: in attempting to capture the entirety of human of experience, it eludes specificity and conventions about love, sexuality, and self-discovery. Ultimately what centers the film is said astute filmgoer’s observation: the human desire for connection.
The film follows Adèle (Exarchopoulus) from age 15 to her 20s. We first see her going through the frustrating dissatisfaction of a stagnant high school life. She meets Emma (Seydoux), the blue haired art student who offers to tutor her in philosophy, and the two fall into a wild, visceral, passionate relationship before the cracks begin to show and break them apart. A large amount of the film pays attention to their love and their relationship, but the majority of the film focuses on Adèle. In fact, the film’s original French title, La Vie d’Adèle—Chapitres 1 et 2, translated to The Life of Adèle—Chapters 1 and 2 captures the film’s story more aptly. Played with incredible acuteness and sensibility by Exarchopoulos, her experiences, her desires, her sufferings are at the center of the film, and it is her story that we follow throughout the narrative even as Emma enters, leaves, and reenters. The fascination and controversies over the film’s sex scenes, resulting in its NC-17 rating and its being banned in Idaho, has given the impression that the film is only about a lesbian romance, when a more accurate description would be that the film is about a young girl’s desire to know herself through physical, emotional, intellectual, sexual connections.
The overwhelming desire and hunger for human connection at the core of the film make it an exhaustive experience. The sheer force of the two lead actresses’ performances, the amount of emotion and commitment in every scene, is enough to leave viewers breathless. The film is made up almost entirely of close ups, so that the audience is constantly preoccupied with Adèle’s face. We are forced to pay attention to every detail, beautiful and ugly—her lips, greedily devouring spaghetti or lightly parted in anticipation, her eyes, often wide or overflowing with tears, her running nose, her messy hair in front of her face. Kechiche seems to be relentlessly insisting on our identification with her through these extreme close-ups, made even more dramatic by the motions of the hand-held camera.
It is here that we start to see the film’s limitations. Blue is the Warmest Color is not just a bildungsroman—it is a film by a man seemingly aware of his own limitations in penetrating the minds and experiences of female subjects. A small snippet of dialogue that has been frequently cited in criticisms comes from a male art-dealer at a party debuting Emma’s work, featuring Adèle as her muse, in which he talks about female desire. “Ever since women have been shown in paintings, their ecstasy is shown more than men’s, whose is shown via women…Men try desperately to depict it…Art by women never tackles female pleasure.” The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis cites this metacommentary and the subsequent silence of the female subjects as an example of the film’s failure to move beyond male representation. However, it seems that this moment reveals a kind of self-awareness of Kechiche’s own desire to connect with and understand female pleasure. The constant jerk of the hand-held camera as he unyieldingly focuses on Adèle’s face betrays his anxiety; it is as if he is getting as close as possible to Adèle, trying to decipher every small movement of her face in order to reach a kind of transcendent connection and identification.
But the camera, like Adèle, cannot resist the pleasures of the body. It leaves Adèle’s face at times to show the rest of her, particularly her derrière, and a scene in which the main couple visits an art gallery again shows the camera’s fascination with the backside.
Which brings us to the now infamous lesbian sex scenes. Julie Maroh, the author of the original graphic novel that the film is largely based on, has stated that she finds the scenes verging on pornographic, and that the lack of a lesbian perspective on the set reveals their artificiality. Yet it seems Kechiche himself was again aware of his own limitations in this field; the scenes are brightly lit and positioned so that, rather than getting shadowed suggestions, the viewer is forced to gaze upon both bodies in full view, impossible to ignore. Just as the two actors enact the passion and animalistic hunger of their characters, a desperate desire for connection on physical and emotional terms, we see Kechiche’s own desperate desire for connection, wanting to gaze at them in entirety but consequently exposing the artificiality of their mimed actions and the too-bright light. Just as Adèle greedily eats, pleasures herself, makes love with wild passion and voraciousness, sobs so openly that her eyes puff up and her nose runs, Kechiche attacks his filmmaking with a ravenous desire for realism and connection, that ultimately reveals his own limitations.
Another controversy surrounding the film comes from the lead actresses’ descriptions of the exhausting strain of working Kechiche, who is famous for demanding multiple, sometimes hundreds of takes at a time with little clear direction. After five exhausting months, Kechiche apparently had some seven hundred and fifty hours of dailies by the end of shooting. The actresses describe rigorous hours and the emotional and physical strains of such conditions, and their own exhaustion and unwavering commitment shows on screen. Kechiche’s severe, demanding, self-indulgent style adds another layer of hunger and desire coloring the film. Like Adèle, Kechiche demands more and more from those around him, and also like Adèle it seems that he encountered the limitations of insatiable desire. The film demonstrates, as Adèle experiences, the exhaustive need for human connection. The final shot of the film, in contrast to the unceasing close ups, shows Adèle walking away from the camera as it remains relatively still, unable to capture her face, unable to subject her to the scrutinizing gaze, unable to forge a connection.