Naked in the Sanctuary: A Review of Blue is the Warmest Color

If I hadn’t seen Richard Brody’s review of Blue is the Warmest Color in the New Yorker, I would not have thought twice about seeing the film. However, I was intrigued after hearing that it was banned in Boise, Idaho, owing to its graphic use of lesbian sexual imagery. Further, the Independent Film Council Center in New York removed its NC-17 rating, which sparked frothing outrage by parents’ lobbying groups, upset that their teenagers could see such sexual display without consent. For me, this sealed the deal. I went to see it in Pasadena the same week.

Blue, by French director Abdellatif Kechiche, poignantly reflects the anxiety and beauty of new love — perhaps any deep love — while still holding on to who you are trying to become. The story’s main character, Adèle (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, 19) is a young high school student in France, struggling to discover her identity in a world that seems to already know what it wants.

In the opening sequence, she brushes past Emma (Léa Seydoux, 28) and in an ephemeral moment of “love at first sight,” begins the emotional tide that fluctuates throughout the rest of the film. Adèle has a brief relationship with a boy in her school, but is unsatisfied with her lover, despite his seemingly charming qualities. She ends it, unsure of what was missing.

In a push of fate, Adèle meets Emma face-to-face at a lesbian bar, and she becomes helplessly enamored. Despite Adèle’s hesitance about her own sexual identity in their budding relationship, we see a tender and visceral connection develop between Adèle and her lover in scenes ranging from lounging on the green in a park, to dinning with each others’ parents, to ravishing each other in the bedroom — culminating in an explicit seven minute sex scene.

And this is perhaps what has viewers in a twist: Kechiche seems preoccupied with displaying how incredibly fumbling, beautiful, and hungry sex can be sans the censorship and storytelling typical of on-screen sexual encounters. The film generated quite a bit of controversy, not only due to the sensual nature of these scenes, but rumors of a driven, eccentric director demanding too much of his actors. When accused of mistreating his actors by being overly demanding and rigorous (especially during the sex scenes and a break-up scene), Kechiche wanted to cancel Blue’s release, saying he would rather be thought paranoid than “be called a tyrant.”

The result of such scenes, however, is impeccable characterization. Adèle trips into love, and we are reminded that love stories are rarely Disneyesque. The sex portrayed in the film is so graphic and prolonged that it left me squirming (especially considering my conservative Christian upbringing in which my parents preferred a violent beheading to implied sex on our household television).

Other interesting controversy over the film came with the question of accuracy. Julie Maroh compares the lesbian portrayal of intercourse by a heterosexual director nothing short of “uninformed, unconvincing and pornographic,” questioning whether Kechiche knew any lesbian women or was familiar with their sex acts.

Despite the intimate display, I tried to stay with the film as I got the sense that my uneasiness had less to do with being a consumer of graphic images than with witnessing an intensely private experience. I felt as if I were intruding on Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, and perhaps should have stepped out of the theatre to let them have their la petit mort.

This intimacy, however, was the paradox of the film’s beauty. It is what made their relationship believable. It’s also what makes the film taboo for many viewers, especially in the Evangelical Christian world.

When I had set out to see the film, I wasn’t sure whom I could ask to accompany me. Being in an Evangelical context myself makes it difficult to broach explicit sexuality, especially female-female sex on-screen. (Indeed, one review by Melissa Weller stated the long sex scene “features the stark naked leading ladies biting, slapping, howling and gyrating in on and around each other with lustful raw instinct-. Not the easiest sell to the Seminarians who comprise many of my friends.)

Why did I feel the need to explain or justify my reasons for viewing such a film? Sex has become so hidden and privatized in modernity and Christendom that it can be discussed only by an exclusive few (e.g., therapist, priest, confidant, blogger). The theological mode of acknowledging sex has long been what should and shouldn’t be practiced; in short: ethics. Other forms of exposure, say, for instance, watching women grinding their pelvises together, is difficult to legitimize. When sex leaks into the public domain, the Church is put especially ill at ease because we tend to believe sexuality is something fundamentally to be contained, if not ignored.

But more than simply unveiling the wound created by hidden sex in the Church, Blue has something to tell us about community. I appreciated this film for how it draws out the necessity of making relationships open to others. I think Kechiche realizes that when sex is a part of love, it is furiously fragile, volatile, and embedded within real human experience. This story is neither neat, nor devoid of hurts or misguidance. It is easy to recognize the almost mystical (yet palpably physical) journey Adèle travels while falling in love. A key difference exists, however, between the leading characters’ journeys.

Emma has friends, close confidants, and is out to her parents. She has people to rely on; Adèle is afraid to reveal that she is in love with a woman. Even after moving in with Emma will not tell her colleagues that she is a lesbian. When Emma becomes annoyed that she has not taken up a more creative career than teaching, Adèle says, “You are enough to make me happy.” Adèle suffers for relying solely on her relationship for identity, and struggles to individuate. In a faith community, sex and relationships cannot be confined to a purely private sphere. If we believe others have the right to enter into our lives, sexuality must seek a way of undressing itself before our trusted allies.

Whatever we may (or may not) say about sex as Christians, the primary thrust of Blue echoes the sentiments of Brody’s review: “Sex is actually never not a big deal, whether in movies or in life.” In our contemporary context, sexuality is intrinsically linked with our human identity, and reflects for Adèle what we primarily long for as humans: to be known.

In our psychologies, sexual intimacy may even have become a primary way of expressing a person’s identity to another, even if it is brief. Because the film belies such vulnerability, we see all the raw detail that the actors give with their bodies: the “imperfections,” where sexual technique fails, the missed groping for a kiss, the chubbiness of soft bellies. This is what it is to be exposed and open.

In this exposure Emma knows Adèle in a way she can’t know any other person. In this openness we find the problem common to humanity — that to be known means giving of ourselves. To be known consistently, and dare I say fully, is excruciatingly elusive. It is a risk of faith between humans, and with God.  In a Christian context, we move towards the trust that God is worth giving ourselves to fully.

Blue is not a film for everyone, and that is okay. But it does portray a depth of human experience and confronts viewers with incisive questions. What does it mean to have our whole selves, as physical, emotional, spiritual bodies, unmasked? How do we know, and can we be known in relationships that (despite our best efforts) are time-limited and temporary? And what is the role of community in the journey of love — new love, broken love, physical love, and same-sex love?

Chris Keiper is a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Fuller, and studies the relationship of spiritual life to food, body, and sexuality. He is a Midwestern transplant, Episcopalian, LGBT ally, and lover of fiction. You can find him on Twitter @thinvail.