Emma and Adele
Blue Is The Warmest Colour – Abdellatif Kechiche
Filming fictional sex is very much like filming fictional sport. It doesn’t work – because it is a contradiction in spirit. Nothing planned and scripted can ever, by definition, capture the immediacy of the drama of sport in which the unpredictability of outcome is the very essence of our excitement and engagement. Uncertainty is a necessary not contingent element in sport: it is essential that we watch and are caught up in the exquisitely painful, thrilling, disappointing moment when a truly uncertain outcome is finally resolved – as resolved it must be – not in advance by intention, but by the free flow of events that can be influenced but not controlled. We know a fictionalised competition has a pre-determined outcome, a planned and structured result. It cannot, therefore, by definition recreate the true uncertainty upon which the thrill and excitement inherent to the heart of live sport depends.
Fictionalised sex suffers very similar problems. The basic issue is simple: if the sex is simulated, it is by definition not real, not actual. And pretence, simulation, faking if you will, is anathema to truthful intimacy, genuine feeling, honest passion; even as we might say real erotic excitement or plain lust. Fictionalised sex is, and must be, dishonest in a way that destroys the artistic truth the artists are trying to express.
Just like the unpredictability and uncertainty of real sport, real sex as opposed to sex simulated for artistic purposes, has essential qualities of spontaneity, expressiveness that comes directly from feeling, not reason; the sense of immediate intimate reaction and interaction to the unpredictable way partners react during love-making. It is of the very essence of one’s reaction to, response to, such intimate personal behaviour, freed from doubt and founded on trust, that it must be spontaneous, truthful and real.
The filmmaker’s response to this dilemma can only take two forms: first film real, not simulated sex and thus abandon the form and structure of a planned narrative serving a conscious artistic objective; or second, seek to so ‘truthfully’ simulate the sex that the viewer is convinced of the authenticity of the portrayal; recognizes in this simulation the accuracy of artistic truth.
It is not a flippant remark to say that the essential difference, certainly sexually, between men and women, is that women can, whereas men can’t, fake an orgasm. If, wrongly I would argue, one thinks of sexual relationships in terms of relative power and domination we end with a profound paradox that might be argued to lie at the heart of the worst conceptions of human sexual relationships: while men have the power of physical strength; women hold the power of sexual control. It is hard to estimate the sum total of human unhappiness derived from bad resolutions to this paradox.
This inherent difference between men and women’s sexuality makes it almost impossible to know quite what we are watching in Blue. As Meg Ryan memorably once demonstrated, hilariously, in genuine, teasing mockery of mens’ blithe, but false assumptions, only the subject can distinguish between a real and a successfully simulated female orgasm. It may be argued that sexual relations are the natural home of an occasional benign dishonesty; of the considerate, compassionate lie.
It is argued that our culture is sex-obsessed; that we take sex far too seriously; as if it were the be-all and end-all of life. Perversely perhaps I wonder whether we don’t take sex seriously enough. The parallel for many men between sex and say football is quite close: they want to win at all costs; they want to score a goal every time they try; even those who may admire a clever, skilful build-up always want every movement to end in a goal. That isn’t even the truth of football aspiration. It is a disastrously misguided way to think of sexuality: the partner is seen as someone to defeat, to overcome, to beat: someone to take from. Only scoring goals matters and a few almost unopposed penalties, with all the odds in favour of the kicker, are longed for. All satisfaction is seen as personal, subjective, selfish.
In contrast good sex surely should be consensual, co-operative, freely entered into and always conditioned by willing, trusting consent, which may be removed at any point. The conventional wisdom is to feel more comfortable in using the concept of love to mitigate the potentially overwhelming power of sexual passion. This reassuringly domesticates the visceral power of sexual drive by subjecting it to the controlling, limiting power of loving. I am far from claiming especial expertise here but it seems to me that there is something mistaken about the idea of ‘love’ seen as a controlling, limiting force that constrains or domesticates the power of sexual feeling. Rather, should not loving be integrated within, integral to the manner and way in which sexual feelings are expressed? Loving sex seems to me a more desirable ideal than sexual love – whatever that might mean.
Blue is The Warmest Colour, if it is about anything, is about sex. Whether it says anything interesting about love, you will judge for yourselves. I find it a deeply disappointing film redeemed by two quite extraordinary performances. But here again is paradox: Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Lea Seydoux) are utterly convincing and wonderfully expressive – except when naked. These are dangerous and choppy waters for a critic which perhaps explains what for me is some of the absolute tosh written about this film. The youthful Adele has not come to terms with the appropriate, for her, expression of her innately passionate physical nature. When she meets the older, more experienced and established lesbian Artist Emma there is a palpable explosion of sexual, erotic passion between the two: though from the beginning one feels a degree of ‘knowingness’ on the part of Lea that the inexperienced innocence of Adele cannot match. We fear for Adele’s unrestrained vulnerability.
Adele and Emma’s relationship becomes deeply sexual almost immediately with a haste that a heterosexual relationship between two people of such disparity in sexual and life experience and relative ages, would almost certainly arouse doubts if not serious criticism. It is hard not to see Emma as user and Adele as used.
The worst thing about this, and for me the fundmental problem with the film, which mystifyingly, no critics I have read seem to have identified, is that the much-vaunted, yes genuinely explicit sex scenes between these two are painfully false. They are, sadly, disturbingly, almost indistinguishable from standard one-on-one girlie porn. I speak not from a vast experience but one doesn’t need to have seen much of this kind of stuff to recognise its inherent lack of imagination, invention, emotional depth, verbal and physical articulacy etc etc. One cannot help but blame director Kechiche for this. One looked for, hoped for insights into an overwhelming passion between two people who happened to both be women but with a depth of feeling that could only find adequate expression in sexual connection.
Yet what we get is a lazily set up and trivially superficial relationship that begins, develops and ends with nothing but lust. At times Kechiche gives Adele and Emma lines that imply a depth of connection and relationship that he does nothing to establish; nothing to authenticate; nothing that renders it remotely believable. Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with the idea that two people, lesbian or not, may be drawn together by nothing more than a lustful physical attraction. However, it is trite and clichéd that when this initial passion is physically satisfied, the feelings have no depth of connection or relationship within which to take root and develop.
In fact Blue is ruined by Kechiche’s crass, superficial, voyeuristic treatment of Adele and Emma’s sexual relationship: it’s all he bothers to show; and one suspects that is because that is all that interests him; or worse, that is what he knows will put bums on seats.
If, like me you had any hope that you might learn something about the unique quality of love and passion between two women – forget it. There is no tenderness, distinctively female expression of passion to another woman: just a better class of panting than the stereotyped, phoney shouts and squeals of tenth-rate porn actresses who believe that ten squeals are ten times more erotic than one.
If, as one suspects, Kecheche made it a condition of Seydoux’ and Exarchopoulos’ casting that he retained final cut then I can well understand why these two fine actresses feel exploited and manipulated. One has the distinct impression that, given their wonderful range of emotion and articulacy elsewhere in the movie, left to their own devices and natural acting instincts, these now notorious scenes would have probably been more authentic, more moving, and yes more erotic than the embarrassing sub-porn grunt pant and groan show Kechiche has directed. I will be amazed if real lesbian women are not incensed by this macho-centred, titillating farrago of beautiful but shamefully mis-used female flesh.
Be warned: Blue is also a flatulent, lazy, 3 hours long. It is unconscionable that despite this self-indulgent conceit, Kechiche leaves his characters painfully under-developed, with little of interest to say or do other than ‘play’ at being an artist and apparently teach young children.
I cannot imagine what the Cannes Jury were thinking of when they awarded this meretricious over-hyped film the Palme D’or. In contrast, the joint recognition by the jury of Seydoux and Exarchopoulos seems to me well deserved despite my reservations about the 7 minutes of bad acting, if acting it was, without which the film would not have even made the back page of the Little Wallop Gazette.
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