Graphic Lesbian Sex Is Not What Makes Blue Is the Warmest Colour Radical

This year's Palme d'Or winner is getting a lot of attention for its explicit sex scenes. But the book it's based on has a much more thought-provoking message.
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When Blue Is the Warmest Colour won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival last month, it was met with near-universal praise for its depiction of a lesbian sexual awakening.

The Guardian's film critic Peter Bradshaw described the film's graphic sex scenes between Emma (Léa Seydoux) and Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos)—which run as long as 10 minutes—as "sexy, passionate and moving, in that narrative order." Variety's Justin Chang wrote that "each coupling" signified "a deeper level of intimacy".

"The bedroom scenes are a far cry from softcore porn or art-house exploitation," wrote Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter.

However, one important commentator slammed the sex scenes as nothing but a male fantasy: Julie Maroh, the French author of the graphic novel the film was based on. In an article published late last month, Maroh wrote that the "brutal and surgical display" was porn and bore no resemblance to actual lesbian sex.

"Maybe there was someone there to awkwardly imitate the possible positions with their hands, and/or to show them some porn of so-called 'lesbians' (unfortunately it's hardly ever actually for a lesbian audience)," she wrote. She lamented that lesbians were missing on the set and accused Kechiche of perpetuating a "dangerous" myth of female orgasm as mystical and superior to that of men.

So how does Maroh handle the sex scenes in her book? The English translation of the award-winning Le bleu est une couleur chaude is being rushed into print for publication in September by Canadian publisher Arsenal Pulp Press. Readers hoping for a lesbian version of Fifty Shades of Grey are in for a surprise: There is very little nudity in Maroh's novel.

That's not to say there is no sex. There is lots of sex. But most of it is in the form of lingering looks, erotic dreams, crackling sexual tension, and electric encounters in a crowded bar. When shy, sensitive Clémentine (who is re-cast as feisty Adèle in the film) meets Emma, an out-and-proud art student with dyed-blue hair, she is overwhelmed by lust.

"And it was then that something began to grow: the desire for her. Desire to be in her arms, to carress her, to kiss her, that she also wants it, that she wants me," writes teenage Clémentine in her diary.

Emma, however, is convinced that Clémentine's interest in her is just a passing adolescent infatuation, and that she will eventually walk off with a man.

"When you will fall in love, the guy will be the luckiest in the world," she tells Emma, a comment that finally prompts Clémentine to act on her feelings and storm into Emma's bedroom. The sex scene that follows is four pages long. And here's the second surprise: It's not particularly explicit or adventurous. There is certainly no "impressive scissoring," as one commentator wrote about the film version. The panels show the two women in a passionate naked embrace, followed by oral sex and fingering. There are no lengthy, graphic close-ups, unlike in the film (according to the critics, on whose descriptions I have to rely along with a couple of clips since the film has not yet been released beyond Cannes).

After they make love, Clémentine says to Emma: "I want to do everything with you, everything that's possible to do in one life."

And that's it.

Their relationship deepens, we catch a few more glimpses of them naked, but we don't see another full sex scene. Maroh leaves us to imagine what exactly "everything" means. Having shown one passionate scene to celebrate the sensual connection between the two, she then draws the curtain, as if to say: the rest is private.

Abdellatif Kechiche, the director of Blue is the Warmest Colour, is less restrained. He said of the sex scenes in an interview with The Upcoming: "We shot them like paintings, like sculptures... They had to be made aesthetically beautiful."

Perhaps this quest for physical perfection is the crucial difference between his approach and Maroh's. The graphic novelist is not the only woman to have criticized him for it. In a piece for the New York Times, Elaine Sciolino quoted several female critics who took issue with Kechiche's emphasis on idealized female bodies.

"They are made to look ridiculously, flawlessly beautiful," Amy Taubin, a member of the selection committee for the New York Film Festival, told the New York Times. "The film is extremely voyeuristic."

Maroh, on the other hand, opts for a deliberately understated and ordinary visual style. She does not linger on her characters when they are naked, nor does she use particularly dramatic shading or coloring to make the sex scenes stand out from her other drawings. At times Emma and Clémentine look sexy, at times they look goofy or clumsy, just like real women

"What interests me is the banalisation of homosexuality," Maroh wrote in her post. As a result, she focuses less on the titillating girl-on-girl action and more on the story's universal theme of tragic romance. The greatest taboo Maroh tackles has nothing to do with lesbian sex: it's the modern myth that love is all you need.

In Maroh's story, love cannot solve all of Clémentine's problems. Her lover cannot be the sole provider of happiness in a world that is so hostile to her choice. Her loving relationship is not enough to make up for the homophobic family who rejected her. Romantic fulfilment cannot calm her emotional turmoil and self-doubt.

"It's obviously a reality that's far from my dreams as a young girl," says Clémentine as she is forced to grow up quickly, lead an independent life, and work in a supermarket to support herself. In some ways, it's better than her wildest dreams; in other ways, it's much worse. Being true to yourself, Maroh seems to say, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a good life. It's a shame that amid all the talk of sex scenes, this truly thought-provoking message has not received much attention.

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Sophie Hardach is a writer based in London.

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