There's a moment in Blue is the Warmest Color when teacher Adele (Adele Exarchopolous) and artist girlfriend Emma (Lea Seydoux), some time into their relationship, are having a party, and one of their guests -- a gallery owner named Joachim -- goes on at length about artistic representations of female pleasure. Female artists, he says, never depict female sexual pleasure, at least not in the way men do. Men cannot possibly understand what it's like for a woman to have an orgasm or experience sexual rapture, and thus it's impossible for them to honestly depict such feelings. Instead, we get what is known as the male gaze, wherein female-specific ideas and experiences are shown through the eye -- or lens -- of men.
Joachim's monologue is the moment when director Abdellatif Kechiche acknowledges that he's acutely aware of the inherent artistic hypocrisy of telling this particular story. Blue is the Warmest Color (French title: La vie d'Adele, or The Life of Adele) is about a relationship between two women, yes, but more than that it's about a young woman named Adele who is searching for fulfillment in her life, continuously seeking it in other people. First in a boy who likes her at school, and although he's attractive and does everything right, she feels as though something is missing. In class she reads Marivaux's unfinished novel The Life of Marianne, which at one point details the moment when your heart aches for someone you've never known; it's the idea of missed opportunity, of that person with whom we share a passing but meaningful glance, and the what-if of that hypothetical connection. And so when Adele crosses paths with blue-haired lesbian Emma and the two exchange a brief glance, we have to wonder just how much Adele is forcing the connection and trying to live out this romantic ideal. Adele seeks Emma out at a lesbian bar (a bar where apparently all the lesbians in Lille hang out) and works her way into the life of this charming, willful young artist. From the moment their eyes first meet, blue starts slowly enveloping Adele, through her clothing, her bedsheets, the walls and windowsills she passes on the street. You never notice how often you see a word until you read its definition; you never notice how much you're surrounded by something until it's pointed out to you.
Blue is the Warmest Color has some weird ideas about homosexuality -- the way Emma says she dated men and women, but ultimately prefers women, and the way that Adele goes from hooking up with her classmate to awkwardly, desperately trying to make out with a girl from school when she realizes she might like girls instead. The film presents lesbianism as a dreamy, attractive choice; a beautiful option loaded with all the softness projected onto women for hundreds of years. While Emma and Adele sunbathe and snack in a park, the camera pans up to the trees above, where one tree's leaves have turned brown, interlocking with the canopy of another whose leaves are still green and only just now showing signs of fall. It's just one of many unsubtle visual metaphors in a film that doesn't need them, like watching Adele, who is figuratively lost at sea, drifting aimlessly in an ocean.
When Emma and Adele have sex -- and they do, graphically, at length -- there's a duplicitous quality to the action. The sex isn't simulated between Seydoux and Exarchopolous, who grind, probe, nuzzle, and devour each other with abandon. And yet you still have to wonder, what's the point? What differentiates these explicit sex sequences from pornography? Given the gender of the film's director and the reports from the actresses that filming the sex sequences was a miserable experience (and how could it not be?), Joachim's speech later about what is essentially the male gaze in fine art is exceedingly relevant. Kechiche is -- or must be -- aware that his representation of the intimate lives of these two women holds a certain unavoidable hypocrisy, as he can never truly know this experience, and the lesbian element further removes his ability to identify... but he tries anyway.
It's important to see sex between all people -- gay, straight -- represented in film, but approaching lesbian sex is difficult because it's been so heavily glamorized and romanticized in pornography, where heavily made-up, often physically enhanced women exaggerate every moan and motion. Pornography isn't a real representation of how people have sex -- bodies are awkwardly positioned for the best camera angles, noises are tenderized, awkward and banal re-positioning of bodies doesn't exist, and the stars deliver their very practiced and perfect O-faces on cue. In the world of sex, porn is the Glamour Shots version you'd get at one of those shops in the mall.
Perhaps the sex scenes between Seydoux and Exarchopolous hold a sort of unavoidable hypocrisy. Although they are stripped free of make-up, bringing out Seydoux's more androgynous features in particular, they are still two young, beautiful actresses. Watching them have un-simulated sex is a draw for the lowbrow crowd, the kind of people who love to click on hacked celebrity cell phone nudes and paparazzi upskirt photos. The kind of people who feel entitled to see an actress (or actor) completely naked, as if their universally agreed upon attractiveness and the number of times we've paid to see their movies somehow entitles people to view every inch of their body.
But there's little separating these sex scenes from actual pornography -- the actresses are still acting and putting on a show, their emotions and reactions heightened and exaggerated for an audience; the lighting is perfect, their bodies move in synchronicity, and the camera looks on like a hungry voyeur, verging on exploitative. Coupled with shots of Exarchopolous sleeping (and at one point, having a very sexual dream), where the camera glides over the curves of her body with rapacious attention, it's difficult to take these sex scenes as seriously as Kechiche would like. Perhaps it's unavoidable because he's a man. Perhaps it's unavoidable because it's sex, and it's just as much about what we bring to the viewing experience as the director and actresses do. Perhaps it's unavoidable because there's a graphic sex scene that lasts for 10 minutes.
Which brings us back to the idea of artistic hypocrisy. Just because you acknowledge a flaw, however inherent, should you be excused? Kechiche can be forgiven for the extensive sex scenes, which aren't offensive, but do raise questions about where Kechiche's line exists between excess and necessity, and how that line intersects with our own ideas. You can be offended, and you might be. But the sex scenes reveal an almost jarring tonal shift in a film that's otherwise beautifully scripted and impeccably acted.
While Kechiche may never fully understand the female experience, especially one that involves a lesbian relationship, he does understand the universality of relationship drama and dynamics, that regardless of gender, we all face the same trials and tribulations. During these very human moments in the lives of Adele and Emma, the film goes from the occasional glimpse of the male gaze to a more cooperative subjectivity, wherein the script and the actresses work together in a space that feels alarmingly tangible.
The hypocrisy of art is that it's trying to take that which is intangible and subjective and make it very tangible and objective, so that it may be judged subjectively by people who present their opinions as objective. It's a complicated relationship, but the hypocritical aspects mirror those in Blue is the Warmest Color -- they are a necessity; a necessity that is perhaps at times duplicitous and frustrating, but that inspires contemplation. Whatever it makes you feel, the point is that you felt at all. Adele is desperately searching for fulfillment and passion in other people, while we watch her story unfold on screen, hoping for a film that will emotionally fulfill us. Adele must learn that another person cannot -- and will not -- be her everything, just as we must learn that a film cannot possibly -- and will not -- be everything we want or need it to be.
Maybe we are the artistic hypocrites, projecting too much of ourselves and our desires onto the art. We claim that we love it, always with the asterisk -- if only it were saying what we want it say, how we want it said. Kechiche's film is imperfect because he is painting a piece through eyes he doesn't have, and while his self-awareness doesn't excuse him, it does embellish the finished product with much-needed perspective. Art is, after all, about the intersection of subjectivity, where the vision meets the viewer, and what they each bring with them. The more we understand the intent, the better, but appreciation and agreement are not mutually exclusive.