Blue is the Warmest Color: Sexuality, Cinema, & Forget About Sochi
by Sophia Harvey
I’ve just returned from seeing Blue is the Warmest Color for the second time. Before my first viewing, I was not aware of the enormous controversy that surrounds the film nor had I received word of its extremely explicit sex scenes — I had only heard from a friend that it was the most honest movie they had seen in years. And it is. I don’t believe that I have ever seen a film that expresses the complexity and raw emotion of first love as successfully. But it’s not the writing that’s causing a stir, it’s the sex, and I have to admit that it’s hard to ignore. Tonight, I saw it with my mother, and sitting together through the nearly 20 minutes (all told) of uncensored, unscored, uncropped lovemaking was a little hard to handle.
But in thinking about the experience, I’ve come to wonder why exactly it put me on edge. Let’s put the issue of homosexuality to the side for a moment and focus on the act of sex itself — or more accurately, its portrayal. I believe there are several things at play here, the first of which being good, old-fashioned, prudishness. Growing up in Connecticut, I was told there are three topics that are impolite to bring up at parties: money, sex, and religion. In testing the boundaries of my New England upbringing, I discovered that talk of money sours a conversation quickly, but that the latter two subjects can lead to great debate. Sorry, Connecticut.
Anyhow, I think that even in a theater in the West Village of NYC, a neighborhood notorious for its shirking of the Miss Manner’s playbook, this idea still exists. We are not a society entirely desensitized to the taboo, no matter how much we’d like to think so. And what’s keeping us from reaching that point is exactly the source exposing us to such titillations in the first place. Think of most movie sex scenes; they are lit with soft, complementary lighting, shot in suggestive close ups, and are usually accompanied by a romantic score. Generally, a sex scene can be achieved with as little as a bared collar bone. We accept that what we are seeing is sex, because that’s what we’ve accepted as sex, even if we are merely shown a thrusting silhouette.
There was an article circulating the internet recently that touched upon this subject in terms of the hit show The Bachelor. It discusses a shaky illusion of romance that covers up a mixture of debauched and Puritanical values. Many women vie for the attention of one man in the hopes of “winning his heart” – the audience is supposed to believe that no sex occurs on this show until the bachelor has narrowed it down to two prospects (with whom he sleeps one right after another). When one woman was a little too forward, seducing the bachelor before it was the appropriate time, she was admonished as a tramp. This is just one example of the media striking a weird balance between racey and utterly wholesome.
Because of this media puppetry, we are rarely exposed to true taboo. What I mean by that is raw, unveiled expressions of things that might make us uncomfortable. Perhaps, what I may never truly understand is why sex is taboo in the first place. Is it because sex, along with money and religion, has been at the source of almost all historical conflict? OK. If that’s true, why?
Let’s compare the topics for a second. In our currency based world, money is a means for survival, theoretical happiness, and power. If I had to guess, I might say that money has been at the root of almost every war in modern history.
Religion. Religion predates money. Religion was used as a means of education, explanation, and unity among people. A religion speaks to a person’s entire purpose, path, beginning, end, and how he or she looks at the middle. Even now, there are probably more people who deal in religion than any other kind of currency — except, of course, sex.
Sex came before both religion and money and is the ultimate unifier. Everyone has sex, or wants to — so why is it so off limits? There are hundreds of potential reasons as to why it has been made taboo (mostly political, I imagine) but is there something in the very nature of sex that’s repulsive? The answer may lie in something more personal. I believe that the un-romanticized sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color are uncomfortable because they hit the same buttons as the rest of the movie, just in a louder way.
Emotions in film and television are just as obscured and over-simplified as sex. The concepts of true love, love at first sight, love forever and always, etc. — these are concepts that unfold on the silver screen at a much higher rate than in reality. And I’m not saying that these things don’t exist, because I firmly believe that they do. What I’m saying is that the incidence of Lifetime-love-at-first-sight is far different than how it goes down in real life.
When director Abdellatif Kechiche hit us with nearly 3 hours of unapologetic reality, it ruffled feathers. Experiencing sex between two women at a wide angle, with everything on display, and no score to cover the moaning, feels voyeuristic. Without the veil of cinematic romance, we cannot comfortably sit in on their intimate moment. Just as we cannot (or I cannot) bear to watch as the two lovers realistically, and garnering equal sympathy, destroy their relationship because at the heart of it all, they just weren’t meant for each other. No love conquers all here. And the sex scenes are the same. They are emotionally complex, funny, and interesting — athletically impressive, even.
So perhaps we don’t talk about sex, not because of the political implications or religious implications, but because real sex, without fanfare or gesticulation, is far more powerful, the stuff of wars. It’s the moment when a person is most vulnerable and relating that moment to any sort of loss or shame may seem unbearable.
Now doubling the unfamiliar comes the fact that this love story exists between two women. Something that, in the context of this blog post, is hardly relevant but matters to a certain point. Already we are a society that is uncomfortable dealing with our feelings. It has taken years and years of cinema to catch up to the truths revealed by poets of the 19th century – and I would argue that we’re still far from it. Blue is the Warmest Color explores the themes of first love and self-discovery — universal experiences for all shapes, sizes, genders, and ilks. This may complicate the narrative for anyone who believes that homosexual couples relate any differently than anyone else on earth. They have all the same problems, all the same pain, and all the same sex. Maybe something Putin should watch. (ha! I knew I’d get Sochi in there somewhere!)
This, of course, brings up another point that I cannot ignore: the film was adapted and directed by a straight man. This fact has caused a lot of resistance from the LGBTQ community, specifically around the authenticity of the sex scenes. So maybe they are inaccurate, this is a subject I cannot speak to. Maybe the director pushed the envelope too far for the wrong reasons (a topic explored here by the New Yorker). I don’t know. I can only speak to my experience with the film as someone going in with no knowledge of the surrounding politics. And from that, I can say only that I hope for more. More reality, more controversy. And perhaps the latter will make way for the former to take hold. Until then, I will continue to offend at dinner parties.
**addendum: after finishing this essay, i realized that the three topics are in fact, “money, POLITICS and religion”. oops. but the concept still applies.