Gazing at Love

Blue Is the Warmest Color

a film directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Sundance Selects
Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle and Léa Seydoux as Emma in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color

Can a moviegoer set academic theory aside and still ask, What is the cinematic male gaze, and is it so very different from the female one? Is the camera inherently masculine, a powerful instrument of anxiety, and lust, forever casting women as objects? (The phallic pen has never once deterred a woman writer.) And when is a gaze not a gaze but something else—something prurient or false or constructed as if through a rifle sight, or, as one filmmaker friend of mine has said, “as something to be viewed in the safety of a dark theater”? Moreover, is “gazing,” with its fraught exile and exiling, what a camera should be doing anyway? Shouldn’t the camera instead be trying to get past the gazeness of its gaze—that is, its condition of exclusion—and engage with the observed, knitting together an alliance between viewer and viewed? Is looking necessarily a form of desire? Of covetousness or envy? Was not the ultimate male gazer Hans Christian Andersen’s poor Little Match Girl?

These are questions inadvertently raised by Abdellatif Kechiche’s recent Palme d’Or–winning film, La Vie d’Adèle, nuttily translated into Blue Is the Warmest Color for Anglophone audiences. (In partial explanation, the graphic novel the film is somewhat based on is called, in French, Blue Is a Warm Color.) The film is not blue in the emotional or pornographic sense. Nonetheless its brilliant star, Adèle Exarchopoulos, portraying a girl also named Adèle (suggesting coauthorship of the character; also Arabic for “justice,” and we do see her in one political march), plays her throughout in a fluctuating state of low-level depression. And the movie’s protracted sex scenes, which feature two young athletic actresses (Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux) with perfect bodies (when their characters visit an art museum to look at the nudes, it presents an opportunity to glimpse, albeit in marble and oil, some actual figure flaws), have proven a source of controversy, wherein critics have both employed the terms “pornography” and “male gaze” (Salon, et al.) and deliberately avoided them (Manohla Dargis, et al.). The film has already been banned in one Idaho theater, a fun fact that is getting a lot of press.

Largely what is wrong with Kechiche’s overdirected ecstatic scenes is artistic; they go on too long and are emotionally uninformative, almost comedically ungainly and dull to watch, as most long sex scenes are. (Did we learn nothing from Vivien Leigh’s little morning-after smile in Gone With the Wind? There are more elegant and succinct ways of communicating coital satiety than perspiring and exhausted flesh.) These scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color constitute an almost fatal narrative mistake. Cinematic sex (unlike pillow talk, and that includes the pillow talk here, as well as that of Rock Hudson and Doris Day) is not…

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