Blue is the Warmest Color Review: Is the Sex Good?

Blue is the Warmest Color

Blue is the Warmest Color isn’t the first film to generate controversy for being sexually explicit, but it hasn’t been a while since a film’s sex scenes have entered popular culture discourse with such force. After premiering at Cannes and winning the Palme d’Or last May, Blue is the Warmest Color has now opened in the U.S. on select theaters for curious moviegoers to see what the fuss is all about.

The fuss, it seems, was created by critics and journalists when the film premiered in Cannes, as word began to spread that it contains some of the longest and most explicit sex scenes in cinema history. A little bit of historical context will remind us that the initial reaction to Blue is the Warmest Color is hyperbole, and in fact, films have been pushing the boundaries of sexual representation since the cinematic medium’s emergence. However, what separates Blue is the Warmest Color from other films, as some commentators have pointed out, is that the sex scenes are between two young women and that the film is directed by a man. Moreover, other films have been as controversial as Blue is the Warmest Color, and others have also been sexually explicit, but few of them have been this recent.

This is significant to note, because the limits of sexuality have been pushed so far over the past few decades that one would think by now almost anything would be acceptable. Such is not the case. Just as Madonna was criticized in the 1990s for incorporating sexuality into her art, Miley Cyrus is similarly shamed for doing so today. Films like Last Tango in Paris (1972) caused a frenzy in the 1970s for its frank depiction of sexual behavior, and contemporary films like Blue is the Warmest Color still can’t get critics and audiences to see beyond the sex.

Certain cultures are obviously more mature about sex than others. It is important to note, barring a few exceptions, that America has notoriously been a close-minded nation when it comes to representations of sex. When Janet Jackson flashed her nipple on the Superbowl Halftime show in 2004, for example, it was as if she committed some heinous act, and some have still not forgiven her for that performance.

This is a complicated issue, of course, but it reveals America’s fear of sexuality. Despite the fact that most individuals are sexually active and that most commodities appeal to the consumer’s sexual desires, Americans have historically viewed sexuality to be a private matter that should not pervade the public sphere. This explains, I think, why professional media outlets have published articles about the explicit sexuality of Blue is the Warmest Color along with the typical reviews by critics.

For instance, Richard Corliss of Time Magazine asks in his article: How much sex is too much sex? Corliss praises the film but he also contributes to the construction of controversy by making the sex scenes into a bigger issue than necessary. The very existence of his question implies that there is, indeed, such a thing as “too much sex” within a film. And maybe there is. Maybe that is why we separate “cinema” from “pornography,” and why we have thousands of movie theaters in the U.S. but very few in which one can pay to see pornography projected on a big screen. The question that needs to be asked, then, is whether or not Blue is the Warmest Color can be considered pornography, and if so, might it be a pornographic film that is, for lack of a better phrase, “good” cinema?

This question depends entirely on how we view pornography. That is, do we classify pornography based on its function, quality, or something else all together? If we classify pornography in terms of function, then Blue is a Warmest Color isn’t pornography because it doesn’t exist to provide sexual pleasure. If we classify pornography in terms of quality, then the film isn’t pornography because it’s well-made. However, this assumes that pornography by default provides pleasure and is poorly made, and I don’t think such claims can be definitively proven. This is why we should classify pornography as representation of sexuality, visual or otherwise. This way, we can discuss pornography without attaching any evaluative judgement claims about its place within the hierarchy of visual culture.

The controversy surrounding Blue is the Warmest Color underscores why we need to rethink pornography, because each article on the film suggests that if the film is too sexual, then it is pornographic and therefore not “good” cinema or art. However, not one commentator thus far has identified the origins of this controversy. The film isn’t controversial because it is pornographic. The film is controversial because it is pornographic and “good” art/cinema.

Herein lies the issue that has become embedded within American culture and society. Sexual representation, which is to say pornography, has been completely undermined to the point where it will never be considered “good” art. So when films like Blue is the Warmest Color come along that incorporate graphic sex scenes into masterful cinematic filmmaking (performance, shot composition, lighting, etc.), the cinematic filmmaking becomes devalued by the pornography on display. Throughout history, cinema and pornography have been viewed as separate entities, and any artistic attempt to merge the two receives a backlash because of the stigma attached to pornographic representation.

This needs to be changed, however, because Blue is the Warmest Color is one of the best films about love and sexuality ever made, and certainly one of the strongest of the year. Both Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos give brave, harrowing performances, and to ignore their work because some of it is sexual is to overlook the best acting I’ve seen in recent years. The film is rated NC-17–another example of America’s fear of sex–but it is a powerful coming of age story that demands to be seen by anyone in high school or college on the cusp of self-discovery.

Some audiences will undoubtedly see the film for the infamous sex scenes, and they surely won’t be disappointed by them. They are among the most erotic, honest, and emotional sex scenes ever depicted. However, audiences will surely be surprised to find that the film is an absorbing, emotionally involving experience, and offers much more than its pornographic elements. As you get to the film’s powerful climax in which the fragile bond between the two main characters is threatened, you may find yourself asking not if the film contains too much sex, but if it can give you one more passionate sex scene before things turn sour and become difficult to bear. The film, like life, doesn’t comply.

Sometimes, too much is never enough.

Rating:

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here: http://jonlisi.pressfolios.com/.

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8 Comments

  1. It may be a stunning film…and being that I grew up with a channel that showed foreign films that make this one look pale in comparison (which is why I appreciate this film being chosen purely for that reason), I still think (besides the film My Beautiful Launderette) homosexuality with men on film is still a subject to avoid, even with the Cannes panels. Pretty homosexual women are always the easy way out on film because the thought titillates men, whereas no heterosexual man will feel comfortable choosing any male homosexual film of the same ilk.

    Just my two cents.

  2. Timothy Wong
    0

    I’ve watched it and found it very mesmerizing. Good review.

  3. Wow, what a great look at (and questioning of) our cultural taboos. I’ve always found it odd myself how many American audiences are more ok with watching graphic violence than sex. Certain PG-13 movies can actually be more explicit than R rated films because of this.

  4. This is more of a study than a review, which is something most reviews should be like.

    Some reviewers have criticised the length. I’d say it’s absolutely essential for the movie’s quality that it is three hours long. It gives us the time to know about these characters intimately and feel much stronger about the experiences they’re having. The direction is so up and close on these girls’ lives that it becomes almost impossible not to feel with them. Maybe there’s a tiny dip here and there where it dragged a bit but honestly, the movie never felt like three hours.

  5. My take on the movie is that it was incredibly boring. I know, really creative criticism, but that was my view in a nutshell. The story can essentially be summed up as a young girl gets her heart broken and whines about it for literally an hour. It was fantastically tedious.

  6. I just watched the movie and it was really good. It is a movie that will stay with you a long time after you’ve seen it. There are many sex scenes but the director never go too far, they are always tastefully done.

    One of the best films i have seen recently,

  7. Nathaniel U
    0

    I don’t understand the controversies around this, are we really still foreign to homosexuality? What is this, the 70’s…?

    Enjoy the damn thing for its art.

  8. Scarlett
    0

    I posted my experience on IMDB, so why not share it here. I saw this yesterday at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York City. During the course of the movie’s sex scenes between Adèle and Emma, three or four times, both individuals and groups of two actually got up and walked out. The final person to walk out muttered “Disgusting!” as they left.

    I can understand why they left, but I’m still a bit surprised. The movie is advertised as NC-17 for explicit sexual content. However, it does push the NC-17 envelope more than other movies that have achieved the rating for sexuality, such as Bad Lieutenant, Killer Joe and Shame. As compared to Requiem for a Dream, this movie has no shots of penetration, but there are shots of female genitalia. Also, in the case of Bad Lieutenant, Killer Joe, Requiem for a Dream and even Shame, the sexual content in those movies seemed to be more emotional, as compared to erotic.

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