Since people tend to get caught up on it, let’s start by acknowledging the obvious: yes, Blue is the Warmest Color is a film with extremely prolonged, graphic sex between women. Though it’s a controversial point, I am of the mind that the sex is handled well. It is raw, urgent, emotionally motivated, and explicit without being pornographic. Depending on who you ask, the scenes are either degrading in their objectification of lesbianism or revolutionary in their commitment to showing what it sometimes looks like when women sleep together. There’s also the reality that, according to actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, director Abdellatif Kechiche pushed them during the love scenes in ways that made them feel shy at best and uncomfortable or violated at worst. All of this must be considered.
But to listen to the mainstream talking points regarding Blue, you would think that this is a film where eroticism overwhelms narrative. You would think that the film is about sex. And it simply isn’t.
The reason we always need to acknowledge the sex first is because, ultimately, that discussion leads to a far more complex and important question: how does gaze (both male and female, both straight and gay) operate in Blue?
From the opening moments of the film, there are two gazes at odds with each other: Kechiche’s and Adèle’s (the character, not the actress — confusingly, they share the same name). Kechiche’s is apparent first: when we are introduced to Adèle, she is walking to school and wearing noticeably form-fitting jeans. Critic Amy Taubin noticed this right away and remarked on it in her Cannes review for Film Comment: “Why, I wondered, in a shot that introduces the central character as she walks to school, is the focal point her ass? True, it is a lovely ass, even in a nondescript skirt, and we soon see more of it, and still more again.”
Yet as soon as we become accustomed to Kechiche’s gaze, there’s a shift. In quick succession, we are presented with the following scenes: a classroom discussion about a passage from Pierre de Marivaux’s novel “La Vie de Marianne” (a passage in which the female narrator says of a man, “I wanted to watch him, not please him”); Adèle and her friends — all women; gay best friend Valentin shows up later — sitting at lunch and ogling their classmate Thomas; and Adèle watching television at the dinner table. Kechiche’s gaze may be visually prominent, but it’s Adèle’s that’s driving the story forward.
Another line from “La Vie de Marianne” that is read aloud in Adèle’s class is: “My heart was missing something, but it did not know what it was.” There is perhaps no better way to summarize Adèle as a character than this line. Adèle is constantly in search for what — or who — will fill her heart, and she searches by instinct rather than a clear sense of purpose. Her flings with classmates Thomas and Béatrice are short-lived experiments, but it’s when she discovers Emma at a lesbian bar that her gaze becomes focused. She recognizes Emma instantly as a woman who had caught her eye on the street earlier in the film — that blue hair is hard to forget. Emma is older than Adèle, and she is already comfortable in her queerness in ways that Adèle is not, but they are drawn to each other with a magnetism that practical differences can’t eliminate.
And there are many practical differences. Besides the age disparity, there are class differences at play (so perfectly represented by the oysters served by Emma’s parents and the spaghetti served by Adèle’s). There is the fact that Emma is committed to developing her career as an artist while Adèle is comfortable putting her writing aside in order to pursue a career in something more stable. And there’s Adèle’s discomfort with coming out — to her parents, to her friends, to her co-workers — which is so at odds with Emma’s total comfort as an openly gay woman. But despite the moments of awkwardness and conflict that arise, Adèle and Emma crave each other so deeply that they persevere through all of it.
A time jump roughly halfway through the film finds Emma and Adèle living together. Here is when we encounter a third gaze: Emma’s, as both a lover and an artist. Adèle is her muse, the subject that will lead to Emma’s breakout in the art world. When Adèle meets Emma’s friends, they recognize her from Emma’s work. Adèle is an object, and as much as her objectification is strengthening her partner’s career, it is hurting their relationship. Emma can paint Adèle but she’s too tired and busy (or bored?) to be intimate with her anymore. So Adèle’s gaze wanders again, this time to a male co-worker, who feels more like a person of convenience than an actual object of desire. Yet this affair is enough to send Emma over the edge. She calls Adèle a whore, the same word Adèle’s former friend Laetitia called her when her queerness was discovered, and kicks her out of the house.
Adèle spends much of the final hour of the film alone, grieving. But her loneliness finally gives her the opportunity to find herself. She starts presenting herself in the world more confidently, changing her hair and style of dress. She develops as a teacher. And she becomes comfortable with herself, as independent from the friends and lovers who once defined her. Her heart was indeed missing something, but it was never another person. It was her own acceptance of her identity.
All three gazes occupy the final scene of the film. Emma’s painting of Adèle hangs on a gallery wall. Adèle paces the gallery, interacting briefly with Emma and others before deciding that what she needs to see and encounter is far away from Emma, and far away from the audience. As she walks away, Kechiche’s gaze follows her one final time, allowing one last look at her ass. The gazes may compete, but ultimately, they each function as parts of each other.