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.
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.
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.
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.