‘Blue,’ Through Lesbian Eyes
The New York Times
November 6, 2013
Of the many things to note about the seven-minute lesbian sex scene in “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” a French drama about a teenage girl who becomes passionately involved with a slightly older woman, is how very long it seems to go on.
While there is little radical about lesbian sexuality on-screen these days (“The Killing of Sister George” led the way in 1968, and by 2010 “The Kids Are All Right” featured a lesbian couple who liked gay male pornography), the sex scene in “Blue” is certainly among the most graphic and physically intense.
It is brightly lit, so we see every crash of flesh against flesh, every pinch and grip. The younger Adele (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux) slap each other’s breasts, pull each other’s hair, scissor bodies, mount and dismount.
CNN wondered if it might be the “sexiest film ever.” The IFC Center in Greenwich Village, which is showing the film, has been criticized by a parents group for allowing teenagers into the NC-17 film. (The Flicks art house cinema in Boise, Idaho, has declined to show the film.)
But not everyone, it seems, has been turned on by the movie, including the very people the film aims to depict: lesbians.
Among the loudest critics has been Julie Maroh, the French writer who wrote the graphic novel of the same name, on which this film was based. On her blog in May, she described the sex scene as “a brutal and surgical display” that turned the lovemaking between two women “into porn.”
“It appears to me that this was what was missing on the set: lesbians,” Ms. Maroh wrote.
She added that she went to a screening where everyone was giggling during the sex scenes. “The gay and queer people laughed because it was not convincing, and found it ridiculous.” Marcie Bianco, writing on After Ellen, a lesbian pop cultural website, said the two women “scissoring” their bodies was a classic visual trope of lesbian pornography made by men. Jane Czyzselska, editor of Diva, a popular lesbian magazine in Europe, said that “straight men are excluded from lesbian sexuality because of their gender, so perhaps seek to control it by imagining their fantasies on-screen.”
Abdellatif Kechiche, the film’s acclaimed Tunisian-French director, was also accused of abusing his stars. Ms. Seydoux said she felt trapped on the set and disrespected while shooting the sex scenes. (Mr. Kechiche, in response, called her an “arrogant, spoiled child” and intimated he may take legal action against her.)
That a lesbian sex scene is directed by a heterosexual man and portrayed by heterosexual women should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever walked into a video shop that caters to pornography or typed “lesbian porn” into a web browser.
Mark Kernes, senior editor at AVN, a trade magazine for the adult-film industry, said, “Most lesbian porn is made by men for male consumers who like to imagine themselves as part of a threesome.”
This class of pornography does not appear to appeal to most lesbians. That’s the underlying joke of a popular YouTube video called “Real Lesbians React to Lesbian Porn,” in which a half-dozen lesbians in their 20s are videotaped in what looks like a hotel room, watching a lesbian pornography film that features ridiculously long fake nails and stilettos. In addition to lots of “Oh, my Gods,” laughter and shaking of heads, one woman says, “It’s gross and it’s not sexy and it’s not true.”
Sex between women hasn’t been entirely co-opted by the male gaze: lesbian directors have also imagined same-sex desire. Chantal Akerman’s 1976 film, “Je, tu, il, elle,” (“I, You, He, She”) and Donna Deitch’s 1985 film “Desert Hearts” were landmarks. The rise of New Queer Cinema in the 1990s and directors like Rose Troche (“Go Fish,” 1994) ushered in a new generation of sex-confident storytelling that reached a mainstream apotheosis with Showtime’s “The L Word,” a sexy, glossy soap set among Los Angeles lesbians that ran from 2004 to 2009.
Ilene Chaiken, who produced “The L Word,” made the sex scenes explicit, though more conventionally sexy (lots of hands gliding over stomachs, artfully mussed sheets) than the graphic physicality of “Blue.”
If “Blue” stands alone in its big-screen explicitness, among the first companies occupying the small niche of lesbian pornography made by lesbians was Fatale Media, started in 1985 by Nan Kinney in San Rafael, Calif. Ms. Kinney said she was fed up with straight-male produced pornography. “I couldn’t relate to it,” she said. “It wasn’t what I or my friends were doing in bed.”
Fatale videos feature real-life female couples, and popular titles include “Suburban Dykes” from the late 1980s. “All lesbians of a certain age have seen that movie,” Ms. Kinney said, laughing.
Meanwhile, just as Mr. Kechiche faces criticism for exploitation, the adult-film pendulum is swinging in another intriguing direction. Some lesbian feminist producers in San Francisco, like Shine Louise Houston and Jiz Lee, now argue that male directors are capable of making good lesbian pornography, provided they show respect and sensitivity to their performers.
Annie Sprinkle, a former prostitute turned pornography producer, said her favorite lesbian sex scene was in “Bound,” a 1996 feature film starring Gina Gershon and directed by the Wachowski siblings.
Madison Young, a lesbian pornographic film producer, said that the 1997 movie “Chasing Amy” had been her touchstone. She watched it when she was 17, “while my conservative mother slept in her bedroom of our suburban home nestled in the normalcy of southern Ohio,” she said. The film, Ms. Young added, opened her eyes “to what queer sex was, what possibilities existed, the fluidity of sexuality and identity, and all this was achieved as directed by a straight hetero male.”
Indeed, some lesbians have found the sex scene in “Blue” to their liking, judging by the reactions outside the IFC on Monday night.
“The performances are amazing: they transmit everything to you,” said Karina, a 39-year-old who lives in Manhattan, who went to the movie with a friend. “It was the first time I have seen a ‘real’ lesbian sex scene in a movie. For a man, he got the feeling between two women and a woman discovering herself very well.”