From the NC-17 rating to the war of words between the director and his stars, a Palme d'Or-winning art movie has become a hotbed of controversy
Five months after leaving the Cannes jury enraptured and taking home the Palme d’Or, Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color” has become such a hot mess that you have to wonder if an English-language remake (or a making-of TV movie) is in the works starring Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus.
The film’s explicit lesbian sex scenes raised eyebrows around the world. The French distributors publicly thumbed their noses at the Academy. The actresses said the director was a monster. The director threatened to sue one of his leading ladies.
Is this any way to promote a movie?
And it’s not as if “Blue Is the Warmest Color” needed the extra controversy, because it would have been one of the year’s most talked-about movies even if nobody involved in the film had ever opened his or her mouth. After all, the film is a quietly wrenching three-hour coming-of-age story about the romantic and sexual awakening of a teenage girl, and a film that lingers on the details of everyday life, from brushing one’s teeth to having sex.
Over the past two months, a series of spats, flare-ups and contretemps have kept what essentially is a beautiful art movie in a spotlight that makes it look far cheaper, sillier and messier offscreen than it is onscreen.
So here’s a guide to the many controversies that have beset a richly deserving Palme d’Or winner that left the Croisette seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction.
Controversy No. 1: It’s got a 20-minute lesbian sex scene!
That, at least, was the word out of the initial screenings at Cannes, when many reviewers spent so much time talking about the length of the film’s first sexual encounter that they hardly had room to point out that the movie was a moving story of first love featuring a revelatory performance from newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos.
The film has a number of intimate scenes – and yes, like most other scenes in the movie, they are lengthy. Still, the scene in question (which is actually the film’s second sex scene, after a dream sequence) is probably less than 10 minutes of screen time – but at a time when movie sex generally amounts to a few seconds of heavily-edited writhing and carefully-negotiated exposure, it seems as if Kechiche is spending 20 minutes between (or mostly on top of) the sheets.
“Carnal passion is integral to the story, but it was a surprise for me to see the big reaction to it,” Kechiche told TheWrap in an interview. “It was not about sex just as sex. I was trying to provoke a moment of beauty and passion, something that would communicate emotion.”
Controversy No. 2: It’s about female sexuality, but it’s a male fantasy!
In the aftermath of the first wave of rave reviews, a handful of critics – many of them women – stepped in to offer a dissenting view: that Kechiche’s film was a male fantasy of female sexuality, an example of “the male gaze” run amok.
Writing about a post-coitus shot of Exarchopoulos, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote,“as the camera hovers over her open mouth and splayed body even while she sleeps with her derriere prettily framed, the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else … However sympathetic are the characters … Mr. Kechiche registers as oblivious to real women.”
“To say that one depiction of two women in a sexual setting is representative of anything is wrong,” Kechiche told TheWrap. “This is not a man trying to visualize something, it’s an artist working with other artists, with two actresses I trusted to create this sexual magnetism. The notion that it’s a male gaze upon a female situation is to limit it.”
Controversy No. 3: It’s not eligible for the foreign-language Oscar, and it doesn’t care!
Winning the Palme would seemingly have put “Blue” on the fast track to becoming France’s official submission in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film – except that the film wasn’t scheduled for release in its home country until Oct. 9, less than two weeks after the Sept. 30 release deadline required to qualify for the Oscars.
The film’s French distributor, Wild Bunch, flatly refused to move the date to accommodate Oscar, calling the AMPAS rules “stupid,” the category unimportant and the Palme much more important than the Oscar.
The last of those may be true at the French box office, but it’s not elsewhere: If you look at the last 10 foreign-language films to win the Palme d’Or, the four that were also nominated for Oscars all grossed more than $2 million in the United States. The six that weren’t nominated all grossed less than that.
And then there’s the dirty little secret that “Blue” might have been a tough sell for Academy foreign-language voters, who tend to be conservative. Many longtime AMPAS-watchers suspect that the film would not have played particularly well to the general committee that picks six of the nine shortlisted films in the category, and would have needed to be “saved” by the executive committee that makes the final three selections.
Controversy No. 4: NC-17!
This barely qualifies as a real controversy. When Sundance Selects picked up the film out of Cannes, the company didn’t really have much choice in the matter. Cutting down the film for the MPAA would have required completely gutting it to have any shot at an R rating; a company that prides itself on handling challenging films simply couldn’t do that.
Its real options, then, were to release the film unrated – Sundance Selects is not an MPAA signatory, so it doesn’t have to go through the ratings board – or to submit it and accept the NC-17. The latter course shows more faith in the film, and says that the NC-17 rating ought to be legitimate, and not a badge of shame. (Fox Searchlight’ tried that two years ago with Steve McQueen’s aptly-titled “Shame,” and won rave reviews but not much business.)
One theater, the IFC Center in New York’s Greenwich Village, has even announced that it will admit high-schoolers, ignoring the non-binding MPAA recommendation that theaters not admit anyone under 17.
In France, the film has a rating that allows it to be seen by anyone over 12 – though Kechiche told TheWrap that even he finds that rating a bit liberal. “I have children, and I wouldn't want my [nine-year-old] daughter to see it before she was 13,” he said.
Told of Kechiche’s comment in a separate interview with theWrap, “Blue” co-star Lea Seydoux laughed. “Thirteen?” she said. “His daughter is going to have problems when she grows up.”
Controversy No. 5: The director was abusive!
That Seydoux comment leads into the more damaging controversies, which began around the time of the film’s Telluride and Toronto screenings. At the former festival, in a Daily Beast interview, Seydoux and Exarchopoulos spent part of the conversation painting Kechiche as a demanding taskmaster who required 100 takes of a simple scene, asked for shocking intimacy while spending 10 days shooting the sex, pushed them to hurt themselves in a fight scene and screamed when things didn’t go the way he wanted.
The director “is a genius, but he’s tortured,” Exarchopoulos said in the interview. “We wanted to give everything we have, but sometimes there was a kind of manipulation, which was hard to handle.”
When asked if they’d work with him again, Seydoux replied, “never,” and Exarchopoulos said, “I don’t think so.”
The interview – much of which also praised Kechiche and the film – raised a stink when it ran early in the Toronto festival. But in an interview with TheWrap a few days later in Toronto, both actresses backed off their harshest comments.
“It was not so comfortable,” Seydoux said. “But it was not abuse. That was blown out of proportion.”
At the same time, Kechiche talked about the difficulties but didn’t badmouth either of his stars. “They were two very different actresses in the way they approached the roles,” he said. “Adele was very open and offered a lot. She would try things, and she would often throw herself into giving different choices. With Lea, I had a more careful, intellectual approach – she was always asking questions about why the character did this. The big challenge of it was to get both actresses to access the right place at the same time.
“But that’s not a negative – it was exciting.”
Controversy No. 6: It shouldn’t be released!
Kechiche showed himself to be prickly, thin-skinned and emotional in the aftermath of the actresses’ Telluride comments, telling Telerama, ”I think this film should not go out. It was too sullied … In advance, they [viewers] will ask, ‘Did this man not harass the girls?’”
But this one blew over quickly, because at the New York Film Festival two weeks later, Kechiche told Indiewire that of course he wanted the movie released. “It was a remark that was just blurted out at the moment, but it’s not what I really think,” he said.
Controversy No. 7: Lea Seydoux is an ungrateful prima-donna!
As for what Kechiche really thinks – well, the director may have spilled the beans on that front this week, when he went on what In Contention’s Guy Lodge called “an epic rant” in a corrosive and inflammatory 6,200-word open letter on the French website Rue89.
In his screed, which also took shots at French critics of his movie, Kechiche called Seydoux an “arrogant, spoiled child” who is “full of opportunism,” and said that her comments “risked the destruction of this already-fragile film a few weeks from its release.”
Added Kechiche, “I see nothing more there than flagrant nonsense … and beyond that, perverse fakery and the worst kind of manipulation in a context where she knew that such lies would have a disastrous effect.”
He also threw in a vague legal threat, as if he might sue if the grosses aren’t high enough: “She has obligations that she must fulfill, and I will return to it. It is for her to explain in court, because she is an adult and responsible for her actions.”
It is unlikely Kechiche can take this one back as quickly as his comment that the movie shouldn't be released – and it’s possible that a polemic so heated could be the final thing that turns a sensitive and beautifully-rendered love story into a sideshow. On the other hand, Lars von Trier made an enormous fuss with his Cannes comments when promoting “Melancholia,” and that film still ended up on a lot of Top 10 lists at the end of the year.
Is it too late to suggest that everybody just shut up and let the movie do the talking?