Long before the ladies of this year’s acclaimed and controversial Blue Is the Warmest Color kissed, spanked and moaned their way to ecstasy and back, French cinema had sex on the brain.
There was Brigitte Bardot, wrapped in a sheet, asking Michel Piccoli to evaluate each of her exquisite parts at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt; Charlotte Rampling lying on a bed in the throes of fantasy as various male hands crept over her body in François Ozon’s Under the Sand; Isabelle Huppert and Benoit Magimel taking to the conservatory bathroom for some very tormented foreplay in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher; and nearly every film directed by Catherine Breillat or starring Beatrice Dalle.
This year’s strongest French films—Blue, Ozon’s Young and Beautiful (Jeune et jolie), Alain Guiradie’s Stranger by the Lake, Claire Denis’ Bastards, and Martin Provost’s Violette—proudly upheld the tradition with copious amounts of panting, groping, and bared skin.
What’s unusual, however, is how far these films go in exploring the ways sex and sexuality are tangled up in questions of class, politics, art, and identity. Eros is a driving force in each of these works, but it’s never a mere pretext, as it has often been in contemporary French cinema, for yet another round of feverish or dysfunctional coupling. Rather, it provides a gateway into other topics that interest the films’ makers—if not the headline-hungry press—just as much.
In Blue, love crashes over the teenage protagonist, Adele (played by Adele Exarchopoulos), and a slightly older artist named Emma (Lea Seydoux) like a tidal wave, and the sex scenes—two bodies writhing and shifting as sweat, saliva, and sounds of pleasure and pain are exchanged—convey the sheer physicality of their connection, the stark, thrilling discovery of another person’s flesh.
But the sex in Blue Is the Warmest Color is also crucial in how it competes with the other force tugging at the central relationship: socioeconomic differences.
Adele comes from a working-class family, idolizes Bob Marley, and aspires to be a schoolteacher. Meanwhile, the sophisticated, Sartre-quoting Emma, a rising figure in the local gallery scene, has hyper-articulate hipster friends and comfortably bohemian parents. The contrast initially provides chemistry, but it gradually turns toxic, as the ambitious Emma presses Adele to pursue loftier endeavors (writing, she urges), and in doing so, pushes her away.
Sex is the great equalizer for these two. The scenes of Adele and Emma bringing each other to orgasm and then lying together, exhausted limbs intertwined, are almost utopian images of a social barrier being torn down by overwhelming passion.
In the film’s wrenching second half, as the relationship frays, Adele turns to sex to try and leap across the chasm that has widened, terrifyingly, between her and the woman she loves. After a party where her alienation from Emma’s social circle is particularly acute, Adele tries to kiss Emma in bed, but is turned away. Later, Adele, desperate to win Emma back, grabs Emma’s hand and shoves it in her mouth, ravenously running her tongue over her beloved’s fingers. Emma is visibly aroused but pulls back. Sex is powerful—Emma admits that things in the bedroom with her current girlfriend, another artist, aren’t as exciting as they were with Adele—but not powerful enough to transcend what are, in Abdellatif Kechiche's wistful vision of today’s France, ultimately intractable differences of culture and caste.
Another film about lesbian passion, Martin Provost’s elegant and insightful biopic Violette, traces the career of writer Violette Leduc as she thrives and suffers under the wing of Simone de Beauvoir in mid-20th-century Paris. Like Blue Is the Warmest Color, it’s a story of female awakening and self-actualization. But unlike in Kechiche’s movie, the sexual impulses in Violette are not satisfied; they’re sublimated into art.
The titular character, as played by Emmanuelle Devos, is a woman ravaged by insecurity—raised by an unloving mother, rejected by the man she lives with, and obsessed with what she calls an “ugly” physique. Her life takes a turn when she meets Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), who, impressed with Violette’s first manuscript, helps her get published and introduces her to France’s literary elite. Violette quickly develops a romantic fixation for the confident, freethinking feminist, who offers intellectual mentorship but nothing more. “Write everything down,” she tells Violette firmly, deflecting her protégée’s pleading advances and ordering her to redirect them into prose. “No one can write about female desire like you.”
And write Violette does, scribbling furiously into notebooks that would eventually become sexually charged works of “autofiction” about an early lesbian relationship, her unrequited love for Beauvoir, and other various memories and longings. There’s barely any sex onscreen—as Violette tells people, with child-like self-pity and a dash of melodrama, she doesn’t have suitors. But sex, or its absence, powers her creative process. In one scene, Provost makes that connection literal, showing Violette touching herself with one hand as she clutches her pad and pen with the other. When Violette does finally meet a man who wants her (a strapping rural type), there’s relief, but no rebirth. It’s the hunger for sex, and for the acceptance it signifies in her eyes, that have enabled Violette to forge her distinctive artistic identity; the act of sex itself is, in the end, almost an afterthought.
Sexual pleasure also seems beside the point in François Ozon’s Young and Beautiful (Jeune et jolie), about a teenager who becomes a prostitute by choice. Ozon stirred controversy after the film’s Cannes premiere, telling The Hollywood Reporter that “many women fantasize about being a prostitute.” The comment was startlingly misguided, but also irrelevant to the movie itself. Young and Beautiful is indeed not just another French film about a pouty Parisian beauty exploring forbidden desires. Ozon has, rather, fashioned a sly, refreshingly un-preachy semi-cautionary tale about the ways young women may be tempted to beat society to the punch by commodifying themselves.
Ozon avoids explaining why, exactly, Isabelle (Marine Vacth), from a well-to-do family presided over by a loving mother (Geraldine Pailhas), slips into a double life as high schooler and high-class call girl. What he does is imagine how easy it might be for a typically bored, independence-starved teen who is so frequently the object of male desire to drift toward such a transgression.
Ozon often shoots his leading lady’s face against dark backgrounds, her porcelain skin and ruby red lips lighting up the frame. The director seems to suggest that Isabelle’s otherworldly beauty, and her growing awareness of its effect, alienate her from ordinary adolescent experience; like many people her age, she longs for something beyond the routine, and she knows her looks can get her there. Young and Beautiful is the story of a woman who recreates herself in the hypersexualised image men project onto her, hoping to escape her mundane reality—and make some cash while she’s at it.