A Lesbian Movie Without Lesbians: The Problem With Blue Is the Warmest Color

This photo released by courtesy of Sundance Selects shows Adele Exarchopoulos, left, as Adele, and Lea Seydoux, as Emma, in t
This photo released by courtesy of Sundance Selects shows Adele Exarchopoulos, left, as Adele, and Lea Seydoux, as Emma, in the film, "Blue Is the Warmest Color," directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. (AP Photo/Courtesy Sundance Selects)

Blue Is the Warmest Color, this year's Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, has now faced so many controversies that you could make a drinking game out of them. The stars, Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, criticize their director, Abdel Kechiche, in the press? Shot. Kechiche pens an open letter back? Take another. The film gets slapped with an NC-17 rating and banned in Idaho? That's a full drink. A New York theater responds to the ban by allowing those under the MPAA-set age restriction into the movie, citing the film's cultural relevance? Finish it. You're spent.

However, lost in the clustercuss of online backlash is an honest conversation about the film's representation of women. After the film won the top prize at Cannes and special recognition from jury president Steven Spielberg, Julie Maroh, whose graphic novel the movie was based on, criticized the film on her blog for its lack of lesbian involvement. Maroh argued that because the movie's stars and director are straight, the film is "missing actual lesbians." Ms. Maroh had reached out to Kechiche a number of times and was routinely rebuffed. She felt that it was Kechiche's right to make whatever film he wanted, but that his process resulted in "a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex."

Although the film has been wildly praised by critics, one reviewer stood out in the Maroh camp. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis took the film to task on the Times' website for fetishizing female bodies and making female sexuality into an abstract ideal. "As the camera hovers over [Exarchopolous'] open mouth and splayed body, even while she sleeps with her derrière prettily framed, the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche's desires than anything else," Dargis argued. "Kechiche registers as oblivious to real women." Kechiche's view of female pleasure is hammered home in another scene where the male characters wax lyric about the myth of "the feminine orgasm, as mystic and far superior to the masculine one."

If it sounds progressive to so openly explore female sexuality at the movies, there's a drawback here. The film has gained a lot of attention for an extended contortionist sex scene that allegedly elicited giggles from the audience with which Maroh saw the film. She claimed that it was "unrealistic." Kechiche somewhat agreed, saying that realism was not his intention. "What I was trying to do when we were shooting these scenes was to film what I found beautiful," Mr. Kechiche explained. "So we shot them like paintings, like sculptures. We spent a lot of time lighting them to ensure they would look beautiful; after, the innate choreography of the loving bodies took care of the rest, very naturally."

This is in stark contrast to Maroh's lived-in depiction of lesbian women, in which her heroines are tortured and complicated rather than voluptuous figures standing for a portrait. They do not fit Kechiche's beauty myth. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, however, argued that there's nothing wrong with beauty, and that arguments like Maroh's and Dargis' fall into an outdated "feminist-leftist critique" that uses the male gaze to rid Kechiche's images of their power. For Gleiberman, the contention falls too close to the realm of "gayface," arguing that only queer actors should be allowed to play themselves. Gleiberman wrote:

It's almost too easy to attack Julie Maroh's contention that the actresses who starred in the movie ... should have been lesbians themselves. That argument has a very familiar ring, because it's a version of the kind of argument that's been made in recent years that actors shouldn't pretend to be handicapped ... when there are plenty of good actors around who are handicapped ... and could fill the role just as well or better. This, of course, is a slippery slope of an argument.... Taken to its logical extreme, it could produce a kind of artistic fascism in which no one was allowed to play anyone who was very different from themselves.

In one respect, Gleiberman is right. To insist that all characters match their sexualities undermines the notion of what acting is: transforming into someone different from who you are, inhabiting their body and their soul. This argument is the flip side of former Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh's assertion that gay actors can't play straight, because audiences won't find them convincing in hetero roles. Because we know that Sean Hayes plays rumpy-pumpy with men in real life, we can't buy him trying to pick up women onstage. This same mentality led to the online backlash against Matt Bomer being considered for Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, because his orientation breaks the fourth wall of eroticism. It ruins the fantasy.

The problem is that "gayface" isn't exactly what Maroh and Dargis are getting at here, and it's an easy way to distract from the problem at hand. For a film so strongly about the way that lesbians have sex, a movie produced only by straight people will have a harder time representing that. It would be like making a movie about France if you've never stepped foot in the country. Queer artists are too often shut out of their own stories -- from Mulholland Drive to Dressed to Kill -- which leads to a culture where it's easier to make a movie about queer people than a queer film. Blue Is the Warmest Color is shaping up to be this year's indie darling, while gay director John Krokidas' Kill Your Darlings gets lost in the shuffle.

Film isn't the only medium to have this problem. Macklemore's marriage-equality anthem "Same Love," which criticized the rap industry for being homophobic, hit the top 10 without involving queer rappers in the dialogue. Like Katy Perry and kissing girls, it's a lot easier to talk queer people when you aren't actually queer, and we lose something when queer people aren't involved in telling their own stories. Just as a female narrative will change when it's told by men, LGBT cinema will continue to lack actual queerness without our own voices in the mix. "Gayface" might undermine what acting is, but Kechiche's masterpiece will inevitably fall short of what filmmaking is: representing people's lives. Beauty simply cannot replace truth.

This blog post is being cross-posted on HEAVEMedia.