Lesbian sex a revelation in Blue Is The Warmest Color

The erotic scenes in the Palme D'Or winner are cool even if they're not hot

Ever since three-hour lesbian epic Blue Is The Warmest Color won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last spring, there’s been an onslaught of criticism directed at the film’s protracted sex scenes.

Count me among those who are grateful for the sex scenes in Blue Is The Warmest Colour, even though they – and the visceral response to them – have pulled the focus away from what the movie’s about. The film tracking a multi-year lesbian relationship is really a study of class differences and more about physical intimacy – eating, crying, bathing – than about sexuality in general.

But the sex scenes do matter. And I can assure you, they’re unlike any others that have come before them. Over the years, lesbian filmgoers like myself have agonized through dyke-themed movies that make a mess of sex.

Those scenes come in several categories. There are the ones that deflect away from sexual connection by making them about something else. So the lovers in Better Than Chocolate have sex while rolling around on brown paper to create paintings with their bodies – really.

Then there are those that really don’t want you to know what women sound like when they’re making love. Hence the cheesy soundtrack accompanying the sex scenes in movies like Gia (but see Gia so you can recall what Angelina Jolie looked like before she got too thin). Even the wonderful Bound – whose sex scenes were vetted by smarty-pants Susie Bright – can’t resist the gooey music and the shots of hands grabbing sheets.

And if I see another lesbian sex scene shot in slow motion I’ll go out of mind.

I put my favourite category of lesbian sex scenes in theWait For It category. Among the hottest lesbian moments in film occur before the actual sex. There is exponentially more heat in the sequences leading up to The Hunger’s bedroom scene with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon – Sarandon drawn to the vampire’s house like a magnet, Deneuve playing the piano pretending to be uninterested – than when they finally get between the sheets. And Donna Deitch makes us wait forever for Helen Shaver to get her clothes off in Desert Hearts.

Which brings me to Blue Is The Warmest Colour. These scenes are long – the first one is at least 15 minutes. Too long? Too long for what? For many of us, sex lasts a lot longer than a half-minute. Erotic scenes should do more than show the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, lay-back-and-think-of-England-while-I ejaculate-in-20-seconds mentality of male participants.

In Blue, the two women connect with an electric urgency, constantly shifting positions and looking for ways to up the physical stakes. There’s no gauze on the visuals and the audio is just as natural. The trashy music and the laughably fake, porn-influenced shrieks and moans that have wrecked so many erotic sequences are replaced by grunts and guttural growls that give the sequences a rare rawness.

Elsewhere, Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel on which the movie is based, has expressed her displeasure with the sex sequences, complaining that Kechiche hired heterosexual women to star.

I’m not buying the argument that there is a particularly “lesbian” way that dykes have sex and that a lesbian sex scene can’t work unless it features lesbians. Don’t get me wrong. We need more lesbian filmmakers making more erotic scenes and more lesbian actors playing, well, everybody.

But het women playing dykes in a cinematic situation doesn’t in itself guarantee that a sex scene will suck. To my knowledge, both Blue stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are straight but I’m one of those who think every woman has lesbian potential. And when I interviewed the two women at TIFF last fall, it was obvious that the chemistry between them was palpable. Exarchopoulos said as much to me. “The attraction was instant,” she said.

Watch the sex scene in Elena Undone if you want to get a sense of what two women completely uncomfortable with their physical proximity looks like. It’s nothing like what you see in Blue.

As an anti-porn activist and consistent critic of sex scenes orchestrated by manipulative male directors, I’m sensitive to how women are treated on set and the extent to which they influence a sexual scenario. Though Kechiche’s actors in a Daily Beast post expressed surprise at the length of the scenes and described shooting them as extremely challenging, they were quick to say that they conceived the action in the scenes. Even Kechiche – whose ego is obviously substantial – said that he did nothing to choreograph the scenes and let the his stars take the lead.

Most fascinating to me is the comment graphic novelist Maroh wrote in her own blog about the sex in the film adaptation of her book.

“Except for a few passages… [this] is all that it brings to my mind: a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and made me feel very ill at ease.”

I won’t comment on her abuse of the term porn here. It’s more the idea that the scenes made her feel ill at ease that intrigues me. I think it’s absolutely appropriate that an extended sex scene make viewers feel uncomfortable. Unless you’re filming in your own bedroom, who has sex worrying about how it’s going to look to a viewer?

That’s what I appreciate about Blue. The lovers look like they’re not made for the male gaze – who would have thought that term could become a near-cliché? – or the female gaze, lesbian or otherwise. Not hot enough? Good – whether consciously or not, they’re not intended to be.

When a movie features a murder, you don’t say the scene fails if it doesn’t make you feel like picking up a gun. The deeply held assumption that an erotic film scene should turn you on is testimony to the hold the pornographic impulse has in our culture.

Blue Is The Warmest Color resists that urge. And that’s a good thing.

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