Palme d’Or

Predator or Sponge? – The Role of the Camera in ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ and ‘Gravity’

Blue is the Warmest ColorIt sees for us, though we often–literally and figuratively–see through it.

At the root of it all lies a single tool we all too often take for granted: the camera.

It’s our immediate recognition of the camera’s innate desire to funnel our perspective that unites us all. Film students, critics, and entitled bloggers alike love to throw around terms like “sexual objectification” and “penetrating” when referring to the way the camera sees sexuality. We find it so easy to implicate the presence of bare flesh–a nipple or the genitalia–as a window into the filmmaker’s mind. It’s either “he’s penetrating the character with his gaze,” or “overcome by his own sexuality,” quite possibly “objectifying the female form as a desirable conquest.”

It’s hard to separate the truth from a viewer merely seeing what they want to see or find fault with. With the open forum of the internet affording nearly everyone the opportunity to hold filmmakers to new standards of accountability, it’s extremely difficult for a director to escape such accusations while in any capacity exploring topics of sexuality.

In 2013, decades after sexuality found its way into commercial films post-Production Code, Abdellatif Kechiche gives us Blue is the Warmest Color, his adaptation of a French graphic novel about two young women involved in an intricate, fiery, fiercely-sexual, and powerfully-emotional relationship.

The film is a masterwork on countless fronts, though its explicit depictions of raw sexuality have become synonymous with even its mere mention, allowing an unfair predicate to–in some instances–overshadow the quality of the film itself. Again, thanks to the internet and the public’s fixation with sex, the film has gone from being a work of art to “that lesbian movie with the 20-minute sex scene.”

Kechiche was awarded the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and, in a rare turn of events, the prize also went to the film’s two stars. Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos shared one of the most renowned recognitions in the industry with a director accused of degrading their bodies, when it was the actress’ openness to lend their physicality to the depiction of a beautiful, pure, and honest depiction of love and sexuality–seeing past the superficiality of sexuality as a mere image–which legitimized the honor.

While Kechiche undeniably incorporates heapings of nudity and graphic sex throughout his film, he does not allow their presence to go unjustified. Removed from context, any sex scene is merely “porn” (that’s not to degrade pornography, but merely to reduce it to its intent: to elicit a sexual response or accompany the experience of your own sexual pleasure). Blue is the Warmest Color pairs the adult qualities of sexuality with the playful innocence of budding maturity in young adulthood.

Its focal character, Adele (Exarchopoulos), is a young woman on the brink of her adult life. She’s still in school, messily chews her dinner with her mouth open, and struggles to find her identity beyond fitting in to what society tells her being a young girl should be. She experiments with boys and girls, but ultimately develops romantic feelings for Emma, an artist well into her twenties.

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As their relationship blossoms, Adele is not confined–in terms of script or the camera–to being an object of sex. Sex becomes a part of her, as she explores herself socially and within the scope of her relationship with Emma. We never get the sense that the immediacy or urgency with which the sex scenes unfold is exploitative, as Kechiche also shows us tender nuances outside such scenes.

For every tongue that meets vagina in the bedroom, there are two sets of lips meeting in front of a sunset, the light cascading from behind to envelop the scene in overwhelming beauty. Scenes of tender beauty and raw sexuality characterize a relationship, not a director’s fixation with sex. Why waste time shooting a film for 5 months to satiate his own desires?

As Adele matures, so does the film and what Kechiche chooses to show us. Messily eating her mother’s homemade spaghetti and her distaste for shellfish are soon trumped by Adele’s newfound ability to singlehandedly cook for an entire party or sling back oysters with Emma’s family.  Adele grows, and sexuality is a natural part of human evolution. We experience all aspects of Adele’s maturation with her, and the blossoming of her body into a sexually aware one (versus sexual experimental, as it was with a boy from her class early in the film) is comfortable, fluid, and beautiful.

Kechiche’s camera is a sponge for atmosphere and his characters’ desires, not a predator seeking to titillate us on a personal level. This is Adele’s story, and we need to see what she sees and how she sees it.

The sight of flesh does not mean we are meant to gaze upon it in blind lust. Real sex is exploitative to an extent, is it not? To satiate our own desires and receive pleasure from another person is, at the core of it, using  them. Observing the act (whether prolonged or explicit) on a cinema screen makes the act a part of something much larger that has little to do with us, and therefore becomes art.

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Kechiche is not one to let us forget that the human body has been sexualized all throughout history. He peppers the film with bountiful discussions about classic literature, shots of early paintings which exaggerated the female form, and pillowy shots of Adele sleeping–fully clothed–in contorted, primal positions.

Art is art with or without implication beyond its means, and he creates a convincing portrait of growth by pooling from the elements which make us all human, not by “othering” his stars’ bodies as sex objects. His camera is aware, and it is lustful when the film’s narrative calls for it. Adele is overwhelmed with sexual desire, and Kechiche makes sure we’re along for the ride, and it’s that mindful presence of it all having purpose that frees the film from any accusations of exploitation.

Gravity, another fantastic film from 2013, proved itself as a rare female-driven formidable force at the box-office. Sandra Bullock carries the film–a one-woman show–as Dr. Ryan Stone, an astronaut cast adrift in space after rogue debris destroys her ship and the rest of her crew. Emotionally scarred by long-ago earthly happenings, Dr. Stone is forced to confront her own mortality alongside budding existential crisis, which forms the basis for the film’s running metaphor for rebirth.

The camera in Gravity initially serves to dominate Dr. Stone, often dwarfing her body against the neverending backdrop of space as if she were a tiny embryo at the beginning stages of life. As the film progresses, the dynamism of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera becomes clear, as we alternate between sweeping shots of the cosmos and intense, personal close-ups of Dr. Stone’s face as she faces her demons alongside her physical predicament.

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While Dr. Stone remains in a bulky space suit for the majority of the film, there are a few key scenes of her boarding a space craft and removing it. She slips the top off, shimmies her way out of the bottoms, and reveals Sandra Bullock’s slender body. While the shedding of space gear rings sexual in a film like Alien, the undressing of Dr. Stone instead functions to humanize her amidst a sea of titanic atmosphere surrounding her.

In one scene, her body glistens against a circular backdrop of the air lock, she brings her feet to her chest, and a few expertly-placed hoses just behind her navel create the image of Dr. Stone as a fetus. She is nearly nude–only small black underwear and a skimpy shirt cover her–though the scene is completely devoid of sexuality, as Dr. Stone isn’t defined as a sex object. She is vulnerable and fresh, ready to begin her emotional and spiritual rebirth as the film progresses. In shedding the suit, we allow her to become pure and reborn in front of us. Whereas Adele’s journey to full-on nudity matures her, Dr. Stone’s revealed flesh takes her back to the infantile form of beginnings.

Kechiche and Cuaron are two filmmakers with a clear vision, with endowing everything within their frame with significant purpose. It is lazy and disrespectful to the craft when placing personal opinions about what justifies sexual objectification next to our analysis of a film. There is so much more to Blue is the Warmest Color than its aspects of sexuality. There is much more to the “male perspective” than sexual desire, and a male behind a camera capturing female flesh does not equate exploitation.

We must learn to have a little more faith in the camera. It guides our vision, though a skeptical eye will see only what it wants to.

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America’s Fear of Sex; “Blue is the Warmest Color” Gets NC-17 Rating

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The soft caress of a lover’s palm; The fire that rages only when your eyes lock; The electric current pulsating through two bodies at once–this is sex. Two are united, and it is beautiful.

Unless, of course, a film that attempts to capture it in full is demonized with an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Today, Blue is the Warmest Color—the winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—received the strict rating for “explicit sexual content,” due to what is reportedly a lengthy sex scene involving two women that the author of Blue Angel (the graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color is based on) compared to a scene of pornography.

What is the difference, then, between pornography and an explicit sex scene? The viewer’s intent, whether that be to get off or simply enjoy a narrative, gives the definition some flexibility. Sure, a sex scene in a film can be titillating, but people don’t watch films the same way they watch porn. We’re looking to fill something emotional with film, and something purely physical with porn.

Some have dubbed the scene “gratuitous” and “unnecessarily long.” I’ve yet to see it, but I have a hard time believing that a sex scene of such length could possibly read as exploitation. If something is emphasized in a narrative film (a general term I’ll use to mean anything other than pornography)—whether it be a single unbroken shot in the vein of Children of Men or a seemingly unending conversation between husband and wife in The Tree of Life—there’s justification in a filmmaker’s insistence to hesitate; to make us watch; to fixate upon some fleeting act we wouldn’t pay any mind to otherwise. If context justifies a 20-minute sex scene, then context justifies a 20-minute sex scene. Plus, I find it increasingly hard to believe that a Cannes jury consisting of Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee, and Christoph Waltz would select a pornographic sexploitation flick for the Palme d’Or.

That’s where the mystery of sex comes into play, at least for the American public. It’s often questionable how films are increasingly violent (not necessarily gory, mind you) yet the MPAA seems to have gone lax, forgiving heaps of violence and consistently punishing nudity for simply existing; a bare breast in film is a bare breast that belongs to an actress. Slapping a film with an R-rating for “exposing” what’s real in turn demonizes the sexuality of a woman (I use the example of female nudity because it’s far more prevalent in American cinema than male nudity) and subconsciously creates a barrier for the audience; it says that this is something that should be guarded, secretive, and ultimately objectified.

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For the aggressive American society and its people, sex is simply more mysterious than violence. Conflict is something people associate with on a daily basis. Whether it’s berating a retail employee or arguing with family, the “spectacle of conflict,” as I’ll call it, often leads to the glorification of battle. Violence is a direct product of conflict, and American culture has become desensitized to violence as it’s accepted as an integral part of simply finding a solution. If we don’t get what we want, we automatically victimize ourselves, and instigate conflict to achieve it. We see it on reality television shows week after week. After all, we’ve been force-fed them for well over a decade now, it only makes sense that a younger generation thinks that the appropriate way to solve a conflict is to overturn a table a’la Bravo housewife.

For that, we understand violence for its accessibility, but sex is still vastly mysterious to many people. Especially homosexual sex, which is not an act the “majority” has experienced. Blue is the Warmest Color is a film which depicts lesbian sex—a sexual act far more acceptable to American males than gay sex, mind you. An NC-17 rating carries negative connotations, but hopefully that’s not to say that homosexual sex is automatically more risqué than heterosexual sex in the eyes of the American public, it’s simply othered for no other reason than a lack of relatability.

There’s a great deal of outrage at the MPAA’s decision to bestow the NC-17 rating upon Blue is the Warmest Color, particularly by people who claim that the rating is an infamous kiss of death for a film’s commercial viability—especially going into Oscar season, where such a rating is widely believed to have cost Michael Fassbender a Lead Actor nomination back in 2011 when Shame garnered the actor huge awards buzz. Outside of France, Blue’s country of origin, I don’t believe the commercial viability of the film existed in the first place. The United States, while on a fantastic path toward change and equal rights for its LGBT citizens, harbors a much more hostile social climate than those in Europe. Homosexuality is far more along the lines of “other,” and the difference between an R-rating and NC-17 will likely have little impact on the film’s grosses. I can only speak from experience when I say that films in my hometown of Pittsburgh played Shame when it was released, so if NC-17s are finding their way to C-market cinema screens, we have little to worry about in terms of how much of an audience Blue is the Warmest Color, a film which appeals to those old enough to legally see it, will reach.