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.
Ozon doesn’t weigh in on whether that constitutes self-empowerment or self-degradation. But it’s significant that Isabelle’s secret gets out around the film’s midway point, the director pulling back to let us survey the damage. Moreover, although there’s lots of sex in the film, there’s little that would qualify as sexy. Young and Beautiful closes on a reflective note, with Isabelle waking up alone after an appointment with a client doesn’t go quite as planned. Now that she has blazed past society’s limits, perhaps she will start finding her own.
Limits are also at the heart of Alain Guiraudie’s shivery, disquieting thriller Stranger by the Lake, which sent several male critics sprinting for the exit at Cannes during its scenes of man-on-man coitus (that’s the gay-sex double standard: lesbian action is hot, men going at it is not). The film centers on Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a lanky, sweet-faced thirtysomething who lusts helplessly after Michel (Christophe Paou), a mustachioed stud he meets at a lake that doubles as a gay cruising spot. The catch is that Michel is a murderer—he drowns another man in the lake one evening—and Franck witnesses him do the deed.
But in an unsettling twist, Franck appears to be turned on by Michel’s homicidal tendencies, and the two end up having an affair mostly consisting of small talk followed by bursts of outdoor copulation. Meanwhile, the other men who frequent the lake carry on as if the man whose body has just been fished out of the water wasn’t frolicking among them mere days earlier. As the detective on the case asks: “One of you was killed, we find the body here, and you keep going like nothing happened?”
The middle-aged, openly homosexual Guiraudie seems to be exploring the dark side of gay sexual freedom at a time when the shadow of AIDS in the West has largely receded. The scenes of Franck and Michel pleasuring each other have a realistic eroticism (ejaculation is shown in close-up), but once the protagonist knows he’s sleeping with a sociopath, the sex takes on a more sinister edge. “How far are we willing to go in pursuit of sexual ecstasy?” the director is asking, and he leaves little doubt as to whom the “we” in that question refers to.
Franck repeatedly invites Michel to dinner—in effect, to take their relationship out of the lakeside bubble, into the open—and that yearning for legitimacy and transparency carries an echo of the fierce fight for marriage and adoption rights waged by France’s LGBT citizens this year. Stranger by the Lake is, perhaps unwittingly, a nightmarish vision of a community too long denied the possibility of domesticity. Sexually obsessed, morally confused, these men, like Isabelle in Young and Beautiful, have started to mirror the image that society has long projected onto them.
Bastards, Claire Denis’s hypnotic and deeply disturbing neo-noir, also posits sex as a symptom of something rotten in France—though it’s more than just one community that’s implicated. The film’s two main figures are Marco (Vincent Lindon, France’s most virile leading man), a naval officer, and Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), the mistress of a corrupt tycoon named Laporte (Michel Subor). In ways that gradually come into focus, Laporte has wreaked havoc on Marco’s family, leaving his brother-in-law dead, his niece in the hospital, and his sister emotionally shattered. When Marco seduces Raphaëlle—in classic French style, he lures her with cigarettes—it’s unclear whether he’s driven by desire for her or desire for revenge. Whatever the motivation is, the two are soon devouring each other in the kind of animalistic, moodily lit sex scenes that have become commonplace in French cinema.
But unlike many of her peers, Denis isn’t interested in steamy sex for its own sake. The aesthetic predictability of the bedroom sequences—the characters alternating grunts of gratification and whispery declarations of longing as the camera caresses their bodies—suggests there is less than meets the eye in the bond between Marco and Raphaëlle. Indeed, their relationship turns out to be an illusion, crushed the moment it threatens to upend the hierarchy that allows Raphaëlle and her young son to live in material comfort and Laporte to live above the law.
It dawns on us with a certain dread that it is, in fact, Laporte’s secret sexual life—or, rather, what it represents—that lies at the twisted heart of the film’s mysteries. The mogul, it turns out, is a regular participant in orgies for which young women are recruited to fulfill the most sordid fantasies of wealthy male attendees. In the gut punch of a final scene, we witness a truly horrifying sex act that sheds shocking new light on everything that has preceded it. The sex between between Marco and Raphaëlle, pleasurable and passionate, is what we’re used to seeing in the movies, what we crave, Denis seems to say. But sex can also be a form of currency wielded by the privileged to flaunt their power and manipulate rivals or more vulnerable members of society. Bastards is a genre exercise, but, coming after the DSK affair, which blew the lid off of France’s polluted ecosystem of politicians, sex and money, it has a lot on its mind.
If Denis’s vision of sex in Bastards is the darkest, Kechiche’s in Blue Is the Warmest Color is the purest, and the most hopeful—ironically, given that some critics have cast him as a lecher after seeing the movie. He’s the only one of these filmmakers who portrays sex as something wholly positive: a source of fulfillment, a key to self-knowledge and a means of connection potentially deeper than the fractures and fissures of current-day France. Kechiche is no voyeur; he’s a humanist. French cinema, often rightly accused of spinning its wheels or gazing at its navel, needs him more than ever.