Are the sex scenes in 'Blue Is the Warmest Color' artful? Or are they 'male gaze' porn?

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Image Credit: Film Images

There’s something almost reassuring about the fact that in 2013, a movie sex scene could still be controversial. This time, however, the controversy isn’t coming from the forces of conservatism — from a clampdown by the ratings board or from family newspapers that don’t want to advertise a film they deem indecent. This time, the clampdown comes from the forces of the liberal-left. (That’s very 2013.) When Blue Is the Warmest Color played last month at the Cannes Film Festival, the three-hour French lesbian drama, with its lengthy and explicit scenes of bedroom intimacy, received a mostly rapturous response. There were instant cries that the movie would win the Palme d’Or, and it did. But there were also murmurs of discontent. In The New York TimesManohla Dargis wrote a dissenting view, arguing that the film raised troubling issues about the depiction of female sexuality on screen; she said that the film’s explicitness wasn’t so much artful as it was a case of pandering to the male gaze.

I didn’t agree with Dargis, but as someone who has frequently held dissenting views of the films that dominate the headlines at Cannes, I respected the way that her opinion stirred the pot and got people talking. For a while, it looked like Dargis was more or less alone (a tiny coterie of other critics agreed with her), but then Julie Maroh, the 27-year-old author of the comic-book novel on which Blue Is the Warmest Color is based, took issue with the movie’s sex scenes as well, dismissing them as inauthentic and pornographic. She had a major problem with the fact that neither of the film’s two lead actresses is a lesbian in real life. What seemed, at first, like a tempest in a teapot has now flared into a fully fledged debate that’s likely to follow the movie, and help define it, right up through its release in the United States (which I presume will happen during the last few months of this year).

Here, roughly speaking, are the two sides of the argument, beginning with the “pro” point of view, which I absolutely endorse:

Blue Is the Warmest Color is a serious, adventurous, and — yes — highly erotic coming-of-age drama. Its sex scenes, particularly the first one, which lasts close to 15 minutes, are intensely intimate, and casually graphic, but to say that they “leave little to the imagination” would be weirdly reductive. For the power of the scenes is that they’re really about what Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the film’s heroine, and her lover, Emma (Léa Seydoux), are feeling as they let themselves go into an often aggressive erotic trance. The scenes are explicit, but they are hardly “porn,” because they are also intensely dramatic; we couldn’t fully understand this relationship — the level of obsession that drives it — without them. Years ago, in the ’60s and ’70s, art films, usually from Europe or Asia, showcased human sexuality, and occasionally made headlines (and sold a lot of tickets) doing so, but it’s been a long time since a movie’s sexuality made it any sort of conversation piece. Years of blahly sensational exploitation films, explicit cable-TV programming, and readily available Internet porn have dulled our ability to watch the staging of human sexuality with open eyes. A film like Blue Is the Warmest Color returns us to the days when sex in the movies mattered because it showed us something about ourselves.

And now, here’s the “anti” view, which I hope I’m representing fairly:

Blue Is the Warmest Color may be a serious film, but its sex scenes are really porn dressed up in art-house lingerie. Since the actresses and the film’s director, Abdellatif Kechiche, are all straight, what they’ve created is a kind of straight-eyed fantasy of lesbian sex, one that seduces viewers with a prurience that the movie only pretends not to have. The way that we’re invited to stare at these two bodies, naked and exposed, for minutes on end isn’t artful; it is clinical and voyeuristic. And since feminists have spent decades trying to liberate cinema — and the culture at large — from the tyranny of the male gaze, a movie like Blue Is the Warmest Color, while it may look like it’s on the side of liberation, is really an old-fashioned, reactionary movie that reinforces unenlightened attitudes. The film is cued to highbrow horndogs: It’s an elaborately staged lie masquerading as the brave erotic truth.

Okay, those are the arguments. And let me repeat that I believe this is a highly worthy debate. But here’s why I think that those who have come out against Blue Is the Warmest Color are missing the forest for the naked trees.

It’s almost too easy to attack Julie Maroh’s contention that the actresses who starred in the movie of her graphic (pun intended) novel should have been lesbians themselves. That argument has a very familiar ring, because it’s a version of the kind of argument that’s been made in recent years that actors shouldn’t pretend to be handicapped, or someone of a race they’re not, when there are plenty of good actors around who are handicapped, or are of that race, and could fill the role just as well or better. This, of course, is a slippery slope of an argument, one that has the doctrinaire ring of identity politics. Taken to its logical extreme, it could produce a kind of artistic fascism in which no one was allowed to play anyone who was very different from themselves. And, of course, it also undercuts the very premise of what acting is. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that this view sometimes has the ring of validity. A hundred years ago, when D.W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation, it was accepted in the culture at large that white actors could appear on screen in blackface. Could Blue Is the Warmest Color amount to a case of straight actresses doing, in essence, the same thing? I don’t personally believe so, but I do think it’s a worthy question. When the movie arrives here, I’d love to see a panel debate on the subject.

But that, I think, is not what this controversy is really about. I called the sex scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color “erotic,” but that’s just the highfalutin word for “sexy,” and, yes, the scenes are sexy. They cast a hot-and-heavy spell. And that, it seems to me, is what’s really underlying the objections to them. Manohla Dargis wrote that “the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else,” and it seems that what critics like Dargis and Maroh are really saying is that since Blue Is the Warmest Color might conceivably appeal to men in the audience on an almost Howard Stern level, the scenes can’t be defended. The subtext of the objections is that when the movie was greeted with wild enthusiasm at Cannes (at the showing I attended, the first sex scene was followed by applause), that response was driven by male viewers who, confronting a three-hour subtitled movie that also happened to be “hot,” could pass off their hormonally driven enthusiasm as good taste.

The trouble with this argument isn’t just that it patronizes the fans of Blue Is the Warmest Color who happen to be men, but that it draws a neat and clean distinction between the “artistic, enlightened” depiction of female sexuality on screen and the “voyeuristic, arousing” depiction of female sexuality on screen in a way that sounds good in theory but is really way too cut and dried. Because sexuality in movies can’t be categorized nearly that simply. There are, for instance, exploitation films, including some pretty big-budget ones (like, say, Basic Instinct), that are tinged with sleaze and don’t really pretend to be art but that nevertheless tap deeply into the erotic imagination of the audience. And some of the most revered artistic expressions of sexuality in the history of cinema, notably Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976), are, in effect, pornographic; that’s an element of their power. That Blue Is the Warmest Color is a movie that could appeal equally to the Cannes jury and Howard Stern isn’t, in my book, a strike against it.

But speaking of basic instincts, the leftist-feminist critique of the sexuality in Blue Is the Warmest Color really hinges on something so basic that it’s intrinsic to the nature of movies, and that is this: The two actresses are gorgeous. Their faces, their bodies — the ravishing tableau of sensuality that they create begins, in no small part, with how they look. You could, I suppose, argue that that beauty, and the way that it’s showcased, ties the movie to the world of advertising, to the world of idealized, candified eroticism that emerges from male fantasy.

But really! Are we now, in our movie culture, going to add beauty to the list of things that don’t clear the ideological hurdle of sexual correctness? Would Blue Is the Warmest Color be a better movie if the two women in it looked like the actresses in the scruffy, groundbreaking 1994 lesbian mumblecore drama Go Fish? Not everyone in movies has to be beautiful, of course, but one of the primal reasons that we go to the movies is to look at beauty. And while the “male gaze” argument against Blue Is the Warmest Color sounds up-to-the-minute and sophisticated, where it has grown out of date is that it implicitly denies the women in the audience a gaze of their own. It says that they’ve been co-opted by the male gaze. But maybe what’s really threatening to the critics of Blue Is the Warmest Color is that a movie like this one, which roots lesbian sexuality in the sights and sounds of pleasure, invites us to see that the male gaze and the female gaze aren’t really so far apart.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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