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 all that fascinating because it is not all that sharable. What is being experienced by the characters is not something that can be felt by viewing. But the other problem is that despite these young women appearing expert in what they are doing in bed, the sex may be inauthentic—no youthful fumbling here. Manohla Dargis has written in The New York Times that their pantomiming is obvious; others have noted that Kechiche’s lesbian sex is laughably constructed with pornographic tropes; Julie Maroh, the author of the book the film is based on, has also complained of the bedroom choreography. For a filmmaker whose strength seems to be a vital naturalism, these are sticking criticisms.
From a narrative perspective the most perplexing problem with these sex scenes is that they mute and obscure the actresses, who otherwise, in many other parts of the film, offer their intelligent faces and voices to the screen in subtle and moving ways. In visual media the body is often deeply inexpressive compared to the heart’s great canvas—the face. The sex between these characters, as is true of most carnality, causes the interesting parts of these women’s personalities to recede. The actresses for long stretches of time become action heroes, and the portrait of them that the film has ostensibly been working on grinds, so to speak, to a halt.
One can see then that the movie is doing a lot of narrative wheel-spinning at these young women’s expense. The director has not arranged for a story with surprises or ideas or momentum or much structure at all, and so, well, he is stalling. He has become one of the “ball-busting directors” that an actor-character at the film’s end tells Adèle is his reason for having quit the movies and gone into real estate.
The film begins with fifteen-year-old Adèle going to school, looking quite young in her knit cap. She is viewed from the top of a hill, with the attractive city of Lille spread out below, and we watch her, camera at her back, as she descends. Will the entire film suggest that the leaving behind of home and childhood is a descent? Possibly. At her high school, she loves literature. The first classroom discussion is about love at first sight in Marivaux’s The Life of Marianne—so the movie introduces the idea of the powerful gaze right at the get-go. Another teacher discusses Antigone, explicating the lines between childhood and adulthood—at least for Greek girls.
Although Adèle has one great pal (a gay boy), the school yard is a slightly vicious place with much sexual gossip and social speculation, and at home Adèle has dinner (always spaghetti) with her parents, the three of them watching television while they eat. In general Adèle’s soft wide mouth hangs open throughout the film, revealing an attractive overbite long associated with French actresses. She pulls her hair up, lets it fall again, ties it back up—continually. Between the slack mouth and the unstable hair, we see quickly that Adèle does not quite know who she is. But she is a creature of appetites, and much time is spent watching her pliable mouth chew—pasta, candy, oysters. Director Kechiche, whose 2007 portrait of female resourcefulness, The Secret of the Grain, revolves around a couscouserie, gives us lots of footage of eating, as if, in a gastronomic non-witticism, he sees love, especially love between women, as one big restaurant. We also see Adèle dancing in various settings—her dancing is something of a motif—but uncertainty is written all over her face, even when her arms are raised over her head. We see youth’s beauty but rarely its exuberance.
When we first meet the older, more confident Emma (Seydoux) she is in a romantic headlock with another girl but turns surreptitiously to size up Adèle. It is a purposeful, appraising leer, and although the audience will recognize it as lecherous and see Emma instantly for what she is—a player—Adèle is smitten, like a character in one of the novels she reads. (One may momentarily worry about the windy circle of hell reserved by Dante for Francesca da Rimini, reader of love books, and in fact winds do blow Adèle’s hair around throughout the film.)
Adèle and Emma meet again in a bar, where Emma almost picks Adèle up, or at least discourages others from doing so. Emma recognizes Adèle as confused and underage but soon is trolling the edge of the school yard to fetch her. She courts Adèle with confidence and kindness. Though she looks quite young herself, Emma is meant to be older and more sophisticated, an ambitious artist, and the radiant Seydoux does well in communicating the psychological edge she has on Adèle.
The movie then travels through a few years of their love affair together, and we see that Emma, who at first seems comfortable with Adèle as her housekeeper and muse, will soon find her too mundane, not glamorous or ambitious enough for her artist friends. When Emma encourages Adèle to become a writer, it seems meretricious and self-serving on Emma’s part. Adèle doesn’t want to become a writer and is not much interested in the grad-school-style discourse that is supposed to pass as intellectual—Klimt is decorative; no he’s not; yes he is (yes he is). All is meant to suggest that Adèle is running with a headier crowd than the one from her high school days, and as someone who loves her job as an elementary school teacher, she may always be an outsider in Emma’s world.
There is a reason adults are requested to stay romantically away from underage teenagers: a minor is more easily overwhelmed, damaged, seduced, hurt. There is a power differential, which can be compounded by class differentials as well. That the film is one big illustration of this should not escape our notice. Can one talk about adult sex with minors, if it’s a European film? One should hope so. And clearly the film is somewhat aware of this problem, since like Mariel Hemingway’s character in Woody Allen’s great but troubling Manhattan, during the course of the movie Adèle turns eighteen. A birthday cake is lit and candles are blown out. Whew! Everyone is legal now!
But damage of some kind—even if it’s the damage of love—has been done. Instead of being outgrown, Adèle’s vulnerability seems to have seeped in and overtaken her permanently. Romantic love has subtracted from her life, rather than added to it, and she seems shatteringly alone. One may be reminded of the tragic Marie in The Dreamlife of Angels (1998), also set in Lille, or of Isabelle Huppert as Beatrice in The Lacemaker (1977)—two French films that take the social class differential of lovers head on. Beatrice’s imaginary Greek windmills are analogous to Adèle’s eighteenth-century romances. And although Adèle is not likely to crack and break completely, she will be bent in difficult winds. The chances of her thriving do not look promising at all.
Girl meets girl. Girl loses girl. There’s not much else going on here for three hours. In under three hours, Shakespeare did much better with the vagaries of adolescent love, taking them less seriously and for what they are, but foregrounding them against larger societal themes of war and peace. Does sexual orientation on its own, in the twenty-first century, make for a story? Pedophilia, sexual predation, and wounding class divisions in Kechiche’s film are stumbled up against then retreated from, dodgily, glancingly—not really even gazingly. The portrait Kechiche offers of France, mostly the city of Lille, is unceasingly pretty, demographically diverse, and replete with delicious cigarette smoking. He is not seeking quarrels. He wants things to be as attractive as they can be—all things considered—and sidles up to sentimentality. But his lead actress has run away with the film in a complicated way.
1970s film theory (Laura Mulvey, John Berger, and others) sometimes had it that the male gaze is directed at a woman, and the female gaze is directed at the male gazing at the woman (Hitchcock’s Vertigo builds its entire plot on this dialectic between viewer and viewed). Yet from the current vantage point, in this somewhat antique model, the female gaze may consist of a composite vision and be the more complex and authoritative, by virtue of containing additional information. Then again, of course, the male gaze may be watching the female gaze as well, which adds an additional layer of power and perception, becoming a tertiary gaze, and then the female may gaze back, ad nauseam, in the nature of a hand-slapping game or the infinite regression of a Quaker Oats box or the badinage of Abbott and Costello.
Such theory, often written in a prose with the forensic caress of an appliance warranty, may not be a useful way to look at films, especially when one is dealing with the high caliber of acting—visceral, rangy, possessed—that is on display in Kechiche’s film. The sex scenes notwithstanding, almost every moment contains a dramatic presence where interiority is brought forth via concentration, utterance, silences. This deserves a separate sort of notice. The close-ups of the young, still-forming face of Exarchopoulos show that the director knew precisely what he had when he cast her. The camera work also shows Exarchopoulos knowing what she’s doing as well. Et cetera. Ad infinitum.
An esteemed British actress was once asked why in such a small country as England there were so many great actors. “It’s because we’re always acting,” she said. This past year has brought forth astonishing performances from young French-speaking actresses, not just Seydoux and Exarchopoulos, but Émilie Dequenne in the harrowing Belgian-French film Our Children. Have young Francophone women newly seized a form of cultural expression for themselves? Have they kept their chic, insouciantly coiled scarves but broken free from something more oppressive? Or are they simply—and not so simply—always acting?