The film tells the story of Adèle, first and foremost, as she comes into her sexuality and falls in love with the arty, worldly Emma. The relationship between the two women develops, from the first chance meeting where they catch one another's eyes in a crowded street, to their first proper discussions about literature and philosophy. There are discussions where they are bathed in slivers of sunlight. Closely held cameras and lingering gazes. There are close ups of food and appetite, a metaphor for sexual appetite and carnal desire. There is a lot of looking in this film, and it is Kechiche's gaze most of all which has courted the most controversy.
In many ways there is a lot to love about Blue, and it is not hard to see why it garnered such positive critical reception. It is refreshing to see a film so completely centered on two women. The characters are compelling, the love and all of its ups and downs is honest and believable, and the acting is superb. While there are suggestions of the issues still faced by the LGBT community - Adèle is verbally attacked by school friends and she is still closeted when Emma comes for dinner with her parents - the film does not labour on these difficulties. Instead there is almost a nonchalance to the act of falling in love - the film is free from the introspective teen angst which so many mainstream coming of age films focus upon. There is an independence to Adèle's character and a real sense of liberation when her relationship with Emma develops and she has her first Pride experience. Feminist critic B. Ruby Rich, author of the pivotal text on New Queer Cinema, observed that "...this film took me back to all the great passions of my life...the reason that Blue is the Warmest Color works as well as it does is that you believe the intellectual and physical infatuation between the two young lovers played by Seydoux and Exarchopoulos." Sounds good, doesn't it? So what's the problem?
Julie Maroh wrote extensively about the film in her piece (translated into English) 'Adèle's Blue'. She notes that "what he [Kechiche] has developed is coherent, justified and fluid. It's a master stroke." However, Maroh takes significant issue with the sex scenes. She describes them as "a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex." She comments on the "giggling" in the cinema: "The heteronormative laughed because they don't understand it and find the scene ridiculous. The gay and queer people laughed because it's not convincing at all, and found it ridiculous." She notes that the only people who appeared not to be laughing were "guys too busy feasting their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on the screen." Maroh concludes that whatever her views as a writer, as "a feminist and a lesbian spectator, I cannot endorse the direction Kechiche took in these matters."
While Maroh is otherwise rather positive about the film, this commentary resonated with others. On the one hand, seeing sexually liberated women in a setting where men are entirely absent is something which was, at the time of Blue's release, still relatively rare. However, the presence of the male director (and subsequently the straight, male gaze) is something that is keenly felt within those scenes. There is far more eroticism in the lingering looks and slow unfolding of the relationship between Emma and Adèle than more over-engineered, explicit moments, and that is largely due to the chemistry between the two actresses.
Maroh is not alone in her displeasure. In her 2013 article for the New York times, 'Seeing You Seeing Me: The Trouble With Blue is the Warmest Colour', Manohla Dargis focuses on the anti-feminist aspects of the film. For her, the problem is not the "carefully orchestrated and positioned sex scenes" but rather the "...patriarchal anxieties about sex, female appetite and maternity...the way it frames, with scrutinizing closeness, the female body." Dargis notes that Adèle is questioned on her sex life, her desire to have children and the camerawork and close-up shots of Adèle eating are designed to exist as a metaphor for sexual appetite. Dargis quotes art critic Berger, in noting that when men watch films they often watch women. When women watch films they "watch themselves being looked at."
The voyeuristic nature of the film is impossible to miss. Dagris and Maroh both make points which resonated with me when watching the film. However, as Dargis notes, even debating the merits or otherwise of Blue is challenging, because so much of contemporary film tells male-driven stories. Dargis notes that "a three-hour movie about women" is "a rare object" but further observes that "we need more women on screen, naked and not, hungry and not, to get this conversation really started."
There are pros and some significant cons to Blue, but the key problem is, unfortunately, one which applies to so many contemporary films. The dialogue around representation of queer women in film is limited by accessible material available in the mainstream. More attempts to make films like Blue is the Warmest Colour can only serve to improve previous failings and to increase dialogue around the way women in general - and queer women in particular - are portrayed in contemporary cinema.